Amal contacted me two years ago. She was 30 years old, a junior university professor, and she needed help. For four years her father had beaten her, locked her in her room, and threatened to stop her from working because she wanted to marry a non-Saudi professor. Now she wanted to explore a potential escape from the country of her birth, Saudi Arabia.

For a Saudi woman, personal choice is a luxury. Her decisions must conform to her male guardian’s. Only women with agreeable guardians can control their lives. The rest must live with whatever limitations their guardians dictate.

Read this article in Arabic.

Amal consulted a lawyer, but it left her even more desperate. Courts approve less than five percent of all cases filed to remove guardianship. Even when a court challenge is successful, it is up to a woman’s new guardian, often the next-of-kin male relative, to approve her choices—in this case, a marriage to a non-national.

Amal’s only other option was to leave the country and marry abroad. But she would still need a passport and a permit to travel from her guardian. Amal was thus stuck.

A Saudi woman displays her ornamental products during Janadriyah Culture Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 8, 2016.
A Saudi woman displays her ornamental products during Janadriyah Culture Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 8, 2016.
Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters
Her story is similar to those of thousands of women in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi guardianship system threatens both the safety of its female citizens and the country’s own plans for an economic transformation, since it keeps the potential of half its population locked up.

Luckily, my own guardian was supportive and allowed me the freedom—denied me by my country—to pursue my choices. I completed a Ph.D., studying violence against women. In the course of my studies, I found that almost one in two Saudi women is subjected to violence and a quarter to sexual abuse before they turn 15. Women are also poor, with 70 percent financially dependent on their guardians, without access to their own financial resources.

In 2010, I started an Arabic blog to raise awareness of Saudi Arabia’s problems. Women fleeing abuse began to contact me, asking for referrals to others in Saudi Arabia who might help them or, for women abroad, letters supporting their asylum claims.

These women were willing to risk scholarships abroad, potential prosecution in Saudi Arabia, or the prospect of living in limbo for years while their asylum claims were processed to free themselves from abusive guardians.

Yet their own government wasn’t willing to abolish the very thing that made them vulnerable. The state sanctions the power of the guardian, the religious authorities justify it, and families embrace it.  

Not all women are able to flee or to succeed in doing so.
Guardianship as practiced by Saudi Arabia is not required by Islamic law. According to some early Islamic jurists, a guardian’s permission is required for a woman to marry. Over the centuries, that authority expanded to permeate essentially all aspects of a woman’s life, including guardianship over children, freedom of movement, choice of residence, and ability to leave the house for a job or education.

In Saudi Arabia, the institutionalization of the guardianship system came about gradually since 1932 to serve the existing political order—the hierarchical, tribal structure of the family and society, with the king at its head. State-affiliated religious institutions issued edicts promoting the guardianship system. Men were the heads of families and women their caregiving, obedient wives and daughters.

Historically, the concept was rooted in three main understandings of gender that influenced Islamic jurisprudence: a belief of men’s physiological and emotional superiority; a need to cement the patriarchal family structure; and an Aristotelian notion of justice that treated men and women differently based on their “essences.” Over time, in the name of religion, men were allowed to control women, even through violence, to maintain social order.

As a result of the gradual formalization of guardianship norms, today, only women who can secure their guardian’s permission can seek education, scholarships, marriage, work, or travel abroad. School administrators require guardians to allow paramedics or firefighters to enter school premises during emergencies, hospitals for any invasive procedure, judges to look into cases submitted by women even when their guardians are the defendants, and prison officials to release female prisoners.

Women activists who got behind the wheels of cars in a protest to lift the ban against women driving were forced by the police to sign pledges to obey their guardians and their king—“the ultimate guardian” of the nation.

For women, this system is life-threatening. Police officers and social workers still return domestic violence victims to their guardians, merely asking the guardians to sign “pledges” not to hurt the woman. A guardian can file an electronic case against a woman for leaving his house regardless of her age. No woman can travel outside the kingdom without her guardian’s permission.

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia October 22, 2013.
A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia October 22, 2013.
Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters
The guardianship system has also taken a toll on Saudi Arabia’s economy. In 2011, the Ministry of Justice reported that in the majority of cases in which women requested divorce, their husbands were forcing them out of jobs or controlling their salaries. Unable to find resources for themselves without their guardian’s permission, these women turn to the state for legal or financial support, further straining the public welfare system. The average household income of $3,800 is forecast to decrease by 20 percent unless women actively participate in the labor market. (An increase of 60 percent is forecast.)

It was not hard for the country to bear such costs when oil revenues and cheap foreign labor were abundant. In the last few years, however, unreliable oil prices, globalization, multinational corporate business interests, and the government’s obligations under international labor and human rights treaties have encouraged change, although on a painfully tiny scale.

For instance, the government changed the labor law to remove the requirement for a guardian’s permission for a woman to take a job. Riyadh hasn’t enforced the change, though, and most employers won’t hire a woman without the guardian’s consent.

The National Transformation Program 2020 (NTP 2020), which Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the deputy crown prince, introduced with great fanfare in April 2016, stressed that women’s economic participation was necessary to diversify the state’s revenues away from oil and increase the average household income. But the prince blamed Saudi women, not state policies, for women’s drastically low employment rates—around 20 percent. (In the United States and United Kingdom, women’s economic participation rate is around 56 percent.) The NTP predicted a mere eight percent increase in female employment rates by 2020. That low figure is not surprising given that the root cause of women’s low participation—guardianship—won’t be addressed.

What this means is that only women who are not seriously limited by the driving ban or lack of adequate child-care facilities and whose guardians approve of their work will be able to enter the work force. That is, only women with means and supportive guardians will benefit.

Saudi women have been calling for years for an end to the guardianship system. They submitted petitions, commissioned a religious study on the concept, and actively promoted their ideas online. Women like Amal, frustrated at every turn, are increasingly seeking not only to free themselves from abusive guardians but to assert their independence. Stories of women who fled the country are gaining more media visibility. However, not all women are able to flee or to succeed in doing so. Currently, I am in contact with eight Saudi women in different countries pursuing asylum from the control of their guardians. That is why it is time—for so many reasons—for guardianship to end and for Saudi women to be recognized as equal citizens.

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  • HALA ALDOSARI is a Visiting Scholar of Gender, Women’s Health, and Policy at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She campaigns and advocates for women’s rights and protection from violence in Saudi Arabia.
  • More By Hala Aldosari