“Women should be treated as a full citizen,” Saudi Arabian activist, Aziza Al-Yousef told the Guardian back in 2016. She had spearheaded a campaign which saw thousands sign a petition to eradicate the country’s dictatorial guardianship system – one that she fought unrelentingly for over a decade.
“They all declared that this is not religion, this is all government rules and it should be changed,” she insisted.
In 2018, Al Yousef was detained, left to languish in a prison cell and allegedly subjected to cruel torture – because of her fight for women’s rights. Last Thursday, she was granted temporary release after spending almost a year in prison. At least 10 women rights campaigners remain imprisoned and await their fate as further hearings are expected in the coming week.
Stories continue to emerge, serving as a poignant reminder about the grave restrictions which women still face in the Muslim-nation, and critics have called for the dismantling of the “male guardianship system”.
Under Saudi rule, all females must have a “wali” – a male guardian – typically a father, brother, husband or uncle. Women are forbidden from making decisions such as applying for a passport, traveling, signing contracts, studying abroad, accessing healthcare, or getting married, without permission from their male guardians. Those fleeing domestic violence or sexual abuse must first obtain their guardian’s consent to file a police complaint – which could be problematic if the abuser is the guardian.
The tradition was born from an ambiguous verse of the Qu’ran, which states, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.”
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Research explained that because of this, women and girls still face entrenched discrimination in Saudi Arabia, and are legally subordinate to men and instead, a male relative must decide everything on her behalf.
“Women activists have been campaigning to end the guardianship system for many years. In 2016, women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef delivered a petition signed by 15,000 people to the royal court, demanding an end to the male guardianship system,” she said.
“In May last year, a number of prominent women’s rights defenders were arrested in Saudi’s ongoing crackdown on the human rights community. Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef have all been arbitrarily detained for their peaceful activism without charge since May. Following their arrests, the government launched a chilling smear campaign to discredit them as “traitors”.”
The women in question were charged with promoting women’s rights, and calling for the end of the male guardianship system. They were also charged with contacting international organizations, foreign media and other activists, including Amnesty International, who have launched an online petition for their release.
Maalouf said, “Activists on trial are amongst Saudi Arabia’s bravest women human rights defenders. They have not only been smeared in state-aligned media for their peaceful human rights work, but have also endured horrendous physical and psychological suffering during their detention. We urge the Saudi authorities to drop these outrageous charges and release the women activists immediately and unconditionally.
“The authorities also must ensure independent and impartial investigations into the activists’ allegations of torture and uphold their right to reparation for arbitrary detention and other human rights violations.”
Saudi Arabia currently ranks 138 out of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, and it remains one of the world’s most gender-segregated countries.
In 2000, the country ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), meaning that it is legally duty-bound to end discrimination against women, which would extend to the male guardianship system. Saudi Arabia has stated that “gender equality is guaranteed in its territory in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Shari’a, which are in line with general international human rights standards.”
In an interview with The Atlantic, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was responsible for removing the ban on female drivers, acknowledged the need to work towards improving women’s rights.
“Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia,” he said, in reference to the Iranian revolution and the extremist Sunni seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which led to stricter Islamic laws in the country.
“It doesn’t go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In the 1960s women didn’t travel with male guardians. But it happens now, and we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”
He explained there were greater complexities, which hinged on societal and cultural differences.
“Some families like to have authority over their members, and some women don’t want the control of the men. There are families where this is okay. There are families that are open and giving women and daughters what they want. So if I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters.”
Saudi Arabia announced its Vision 2030 project back in 2016, which details the country’s proposed strategic growth over the next 15 years. It claimed that it will “continue to develop [women’s] talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”
With the restrictive measures of the guardianship system, time will tell how plausible or sustainable such aspirations will be.