Guardians of the Gender Gap
How Saudi Arabia's Guardianship System Harms Women—and the Economy
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.
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.aldosari_guardiansofthegendergap_flower.jpg Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters
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. A Saudi woman displays her ornamental products during Janadriyah Culture Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 8, 2016. 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 abuseRead the full article on ForeignAffairs.com