The Saudi Women Fighting Their Country's Sexist 'Guardian' System

Under Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, women are required to have a man sign off on their decisions to travel, work, and even get some medical procedures. We spoke to an activist trying to change that.

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Sep 30 2016, 4:25pm

Courtesy of Aziza al-Yousef

Women in Saudi Arabia are challenging the country's guardianship system, which requires them to have the approval of a male guardian in order to travel, marry, divorce, and undergo some medical procedures, among other actions. This summer, Saudi activist Aziza al-Yousef started a petition calling for action to end the guardianship system, which has garnered nearly 15,000 signatures from Saudi men and women. On Monday, she brought it to the country's Royal Court, where she was advised to send it in by mail.

Al-Yousef has not yet sent in the petition by mail, but for good reason: As the petition gains media attention, a flood of people have asked to sign it. She plans to close the petition and send it into the Royal Court next Monday. Despite limited reform in Saudi Arabia regarding guardianship, like King Abdullah appointing 30 women to the Shura Council, al-Yousef is hopeful that this petition will affect serious change.

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In 2008, the Human Rights Watch released a report on the guardianship system and sex segregation in Saudi Arabia. Because guardianship mimics the relationship between minors and their guardians (in which women are constantly treated as children and men as parents), the HRC titled it Perpetual Minors. The report drew attention to the daily burden the system places on women in Saudi Arabia: Women looking to travel alone are forced to wait until the arrival of their guardian, often a father, husband, or son, so that he can sign forms approving her travels. If a Saudi woman marries a non-Saudi man, their children are not granted citizenship. In the case of divorce, men get automatic custody of girls over the age of seven and boys over the age of nine.

Further, women can be denied medical procedures if their guardian is not present. In their report, the head of the Saudi general directorate of hospitals told the HRC, "It is well known that a physician must provide medical care whenever a patient needs it. But a lot of social factors play a role limiting the application of the law."

We are not dealing with religion; we are dealing with the laws that are implemented by the government

In a phone interview, al-Yousef explains that women aren't the only ones negatively affected by guardianship. "It's a burden even for the men," she says. "No man wants to be working all his day going back and forth to finish the papers for his daughter or his wife or his sister."

This summer, the HRC released another damning report, titled Boxed In, this time dealing solely with the guardianship system. Following the report, social media helped propel the movement to end guardianship as two hashtags went viral on Twitter: #IAmMyOwnGuardian and سعوديات_نطالب_باسقاط_الولايه#, which translates directly to "Saudi women demand to drop guardianship." An image of a woman in a traditional Arab keffiyeh, the checkered scarf known as a symbol of Middle Eastern pride, with the words انا ولية امري ("I am my own guardian") across her face, appeared in tweets, on posters, in graffiti, and on stickers. It has since come to symbolize the movement.

Al-Yousef, too, has come to symbolize the movement—this isn't the first time the activist has taken on women's rights within her country. Over the phone she told Broadly that in 2011, she began leading workshops in Saudi Arabia teaching women about guardianship and explaining why it is not a mandate of Islam. In 2013, she wrote the Saudi king and his highest religious body of advisors, the Council of Senior Scholars, calling for their action to end guardianship, but received no response. In 2013, she got behind the wheel in protest of the nation's laws prohibiting women from driving, resulting in her arrest. After being detained by police, she was made to wait in a police station until her guardian signed papers allowing her to leave.

This time, she believes, things will be different. Unlike the younger generation of Saudi feminists who started the hashtag, Al-Yousef can remember a time in her country when the guardianship system did not exist. "These laws were not in Saudi Arabia before the 80s," she tells Broadly, before adding with a laugh, "I am old enough to know that." Al-Yousef wants women today to have agency over their decisions as she recalls having in her youth. "I went to college in 1977. I attended King Saud University, and I didn't need to get permission from anybody."

Al-Yousef is aware that many women cannot afford to be as outspoken as she is. "This is the problem," she says. "There are a lot of wonderful women who have very great ideas but, because they don't have support from their guardian, they cannot participate." When asked how the men in her life have reacted to her work, she responds, "They are very proud. I couldn't do it with the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia if I didn't have wonderful men in my life who are supporting me."

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Al-Yousef wants to be clear that her fight is not a fight against religion. "We are not dealing with religion; we are dealing with the laws that are implemented by the government, which ask for a paper to be signed [by a male guardian, in order for women] to do anything," she says. She also emphasizes that this is not a movement opposing Saudi men. "This is not a fight between men and women. This is a human rights movement: men and women together, asking for rights."