Saudi Arabia's imposition of male guardianship is the most serious impediment to women securing human and civil rights granted in most nations across the globe, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
The 79-page report, Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia's Male Guardianship System, finds adult women in Saudi Arabia are treated from birth to death as "permanent legal minors".
Saudi women must obtain permission from a male guardian “to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison”. They cannot apply for a passport without permission. They may also be forced to secure consent to work and obtain healthcare.
Women also suffer from legal inequality in cases of divorce and child custody. They have difficulty conducting legal transactions, renting apartments and even escaping abuse from male relatives.
Women in Saudi Arabia can be condemned to a life of violence,” HRW argues. “In some cases, men use the permission requirements to extort large sums of money from female dependents.”
Guardians can be fathers, brothers, husbands, sons or even more distant relatives. Every Saudi woman is affected, the report says. The system is based on Wahhabi interpretation of the Koranic verse: “Men are the protesters and maintainers of women, because God has given one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means” – chapter IV, verse 34.
Some scholars accuse the Wahhabis of misinterpreting this verse and ignoring Koranic calls for “equality and respect between the sexes”, says HRW.
It points out that the restrictive Wahhabi religious establishment, which wields great power, “largely opposes the empowerment of women”. Conservative clerics control education, the all-male judiciary and the morality police.
The report quotes one Saudi woman, Rania (34), as saying, “We are entrusted with raising the next generation but [men] cannot trust us with ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Women in Saudi Arabia are not supposed to leave their homes without a male guardian and are not allowed to drive.
The government has promised major changes and initiated limited reforms in the public sphere, including the appointment of women to the council advising the king and the right to elect and stand in local elections.
Women have been given greater access to foreign university education, the labour market, and social services. The kingdom has criminalised domestic abuse and established a centre to deal with violence.
However, these changes leave male guardianship of women intact and are “insufficient, incomplete, and ineffective”, argues HRW.
Women winning places at universities abroad must still have permission from a male guardian to attend and may even be accompanied by a family member. Women who have left the kingdom for study are reluctant to return home because male relatives might refuse them permission to travel.
Women who secure jobs must have separate offices; women have difficulty securing protection from abuse. Separation of the sexes combined with male guardianship has forced the 21 women among the 2,085 men on municipal councils to attend meetings only by video link.
HRW states: "Saudi Arabia, which acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women . . . in 2000 is legally obligated to end discrimination . . . without delay, including by abolishing the male guardian system."