A Kingdom of Tears: Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia
When in the course of human developments, current establishments prove to be unjustified and tyrannical to the requests of human dignity and rights, when these bodies only wish to subjugate, steal and dictate humankind, the individuals within a society most oppressed have the eternal right to dissent against, and revolt against, these establishments. Moreover, for those who wish to spectate to this injustice against human dignity, may it be known that those who are spectators of injustice are unknowing accomplices to tyranny. One has to take a stand when the moment demands it. One has to speak up to break the silence that comes from fear and inaction.
History shows that in every epoch, there are those who are willing to go against what a society deems ‘moral’, ‘traditional’ or—more condescendingly—‘normal’ in pursuit of their own identity; leading lives that inspire others to follow a similar course of action—from Rosa Luxemburg to Mona Eltahawy. These individuals do not choose their paths out of joy, but rather out of a desire to escape what is around them and to seek out or ‘create‘ a better realm. Often doing so as a part of a minority, these individuals nonetheless fight fiercely for dignity, autonomy, identity and other values that make for a better humanity. However, this journey is not easy and many face serious penalties for even daring to take the road less travelled. No better examples of the cost for dissenting than in those societies that depart from human dignity and rights, such as in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
One of the largest kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (abbreviated ‘KSA’) lays claim to many things; notably, Islam’s holiest sites—Mecca and Medina—and oil reserves that span across its large desert. For these many things, however, KSA also is home to an archaic system of laws that gets its reinforcement from culture, tradition and religion. Those who disobey or dissent from these laws have serious punishments to face, from imprisonment and lashings to execution via public beheading. (Dare to criticise the government and you will find yourself taken away by police, as was the case for blogger Raif Badawi who posted commentaries on Saudi Society and was sentenced to a thousand lashes and imprisonment in 2012. He remains in prison to this day, despite his wife Ensaf Haidar’s activism.) These laws reach all aspects of Saudi society and benefit those few who are wealthy and powerful. However, what is notable is the way tradition and religion play a large part in Saudi society, as both extend to the private sphere and defy the roles of men and women. Women’s role being the worse within Saudi Society, as is evident with the Male Guardianship system.
Slavery still exists and it comes in a variety of different shapes and forms: the Male Guardianship system is one. Male Guardianship is a system within Saudi Society that requires women to have a male ‘guardian’, which is usually a male relative, who has to accompany and give permission to a woman for her to be allowed to do tasks. From wanting to travel abroad to wanting to seek an education or even medical help, under Saudi law, a woman is required to have a Guardian who can grant permission. Furthermore, if a woman should be involved in a domestic abusive relationship with their guardian, then the guardian’s rights supersede those of the woman—under Saudi law. This means that should a woman complain to Saudi authorities of abuse by her guardian, the word of the guardian is listened to first. The Male Guardianship system is geared to favour Male Guardians. Denying autonomy, financial independence, identity and rights for women, Male Guardianship eclipses the life of a Saudi Woman and denies her a future by herself. It is a system that makes women slaves.
Moreover, the quality of a woman’s life depends entirely on her Guardian. There are guardians who are liberal in their approach and allow women to travel abroad, seek an apartment or work. However, and what must be noted, is that just because the quality of a woman’s life may be good in some parts in KSA, it does not negate the negative experiences of women who depart from said ‘good experience’. In other words, just because some slaves are treated better than others, does not deny what happens to the majority of slaves and the reality of slavery. As for every one woman in Saudi Arabia that benefits, there are at least ten others who do not. This must be recognised, as there are always apologists and PR spokes people that Saudi Government is more than happy to prop up, who will deny this and who will state how ‘nice’ women are treated in KSA. Others will justify the treatment of women by appeals to analogies, often along the lines of claiming Saudi women are ‘queens’ who must be protected. Even though queens are treated better than Saudi women are—having their own autonomy, as well as subjects to command—analogies like the ‘queen analogy’ still persist and the privileged stories of some Saudi women continue to be perpetuated, unknowingly at times, by writers.
Mona El-Naggar, an Egyptian writer based in New York, wrote an article in The New York Times called, ‘I live a Lie: Saudi Women Speak Up’ in October of 2016, about the experiences of Saudi Women in KSA. In it are many powerful stories, but one story stands out. Meeting a group of privileged Saudi students in Washington Square Park, Mona asked them about their experiences under the system. What was their response? “We don’t need to abolish male guardianship. We need to teach men how to be better guardians.” This is a slap to the face of those struggling under the system. By including this story, Mona unknowingly has undermined the piece she seeks to make. (Audiences have a tendency to think that a problem is not as big as it is when there are two sides to it.) Many Saudi girls have escaped from their home nation, many desiring ‘to feel the air on their faces’. One example of those who have escaped Saudi Arabia is Moudi, previously known by the online pseudonym, ‘Sinner’.
Using ‘Twitter’ as a means to raise awareness of the plight of Saudi women, as Twitter is just one of the few sites not banned in KSA, Moudhi—like many Saudi girls—sought to give both fellow Saudi women and foreign audiences a window into the life of a woman in KSA. In real life a law student studying in the USA, Moudhi wore a mask to protect herself from both her family and the system. (Saudi Law, especially when it comes to studying abroad, can send back Saudi girls on scholarships for even daring to criticise KSA.) After a long time of contemplation, Moudhi took off her mask and voiced public criticisms of the Male Guardianship system. Despite the psychological abuse that follows her, both by her own family and Saudi males, Moudhi continues to raise a voice for Saudi Women. Stories like Moudhi’s are not to be taken lightly, as they emphasise what individuals can do and have to undergo when speaking truth to power.
[Writer’s note: More stories will be touched upon later within this essay. However, there are a few stories attached in the appendix.]
History of Oppression
Acknowledging the role religion, culture and tradition play into shaping Saudi Society is imperative, as it fundamentally means accepting reality for what it is and not what it should be. Saudi Arabia in the 60’s and 70’s, just like most countries in the Middle east during that time, from Egypt to Syria, was undergoing radical shifts in culture as more of its populace were experimenting with art and discussing new ideas, such as whether the ban on women driving—imposed in 1957—should be lifted. (What should be noted is that women can drive in non-public areas and only if their guardians allow it; however, they are not allowed to drive on public highways.) However, these shifts in culture did not come without their hostile reactionaries. Ever since its formation as a kingdom in 1932, Saudi Arabia—initially under the leadership of King Abdulaziz—had to deal with trying to synthesise both the non-religious and religious sectors of its nation. Prior to its formation, Al Saud monarchy had a close relationship with the ulama—religious body of clerics. The ulama adhered to a more orthodox version of Islam, ‘wahhabism’ and helped the conquest of Al Saud monarchy over most of the Arabian Peninsula throughout the mid-18th-early 20th centuries. This bond between religion and the state (theocracy) helped to create the kingdom, as the government got its religious legitimacy from the Wahhabi clerics in turn for the clerics being able to propagate the ‘Tawhid’ doctrine—monotheism. (An intertwining of religion and politics was crucial in maintaining KSA’s legitimacy.)
This changed when British imperialistic ventures in the Middle East proved to be an obstacle for the Saudi government, forcing a rigid drawing of strict borders with surrounding nations, KSA had to cut concessions to the ulama and instead pursue secular goals—non-religious national security and foreign policy goals. This would muddle relations between religion and the state. Well more technological and secular influences made their way into the country from western nations, and a ‘modernisation’ of the country began to take root, Mullahs and clerics condemned this ‘westernisation’ of Saudi Arabia in their mosques. However, these mullahs dared not delegitimise the royal family, and when Al Saud monarchy called upon religious justifications for its proposed state policies, clerics dared but refuse. (This contradiction remains, as clerics ‘criticise’ policy in theory, but legitimise it in practise for the state—highlighting something worth note: the power of the monarch.) After the abolishment of slavery in 1962, pushed by Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and in conjunction with international pressure from the United States and Britain, Saudi Arabia’s growing internal struggles and changes led to the abdication of King Saud and the appointment of his successor—King Faisal.
King Faisal introduced ‘radical’ policies in the 60’s and 70’s to Saudi Society that would alter its structure. Through the pushing away of Wahhabi draconian rules and condemnations, Faisal was able to allow women the ability to seek an education and allowed for the creation of Saudi television—policies that cemented Faisal as a ‘reformer king’. This angered a great deal of Wahhabi clerics and religious fanatics, who saw these policies as a ‘perversion’ by the west on Saudi society. These clerics were not alone in their attitudes to westernisation, as religious fanatics throughout the Middle East were growing increasingly angry at their governments ‘capitulation’ to Western influences—seeing their nations going away from ‘pure’ Islam. (To those who were not fanatical in their beliefs, this growing change was increasingly affording women rights and public discussions were commonplace.) However, in 1975, Faisal’s reign ended with assassination by his deranged nephew—Faisal bin Musaid. After King Khalid’s ascent to the throne to fill void left by Faisal, KSA found it amidst turbulent political winds, as nations surrounding it were growing increasingly involved in internal struggles, from Iran to Iraq. These winds engulfed Saudi Arabia in 1979 with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Armed with guns smuggled in via coffins, a group of insurgents stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca and declared that Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani was the Mahdi (redeemer of Islam), and demanded King Khalid to step down. Allegedly receiving word from Allah while in prison, Juhayman al-Otaybi believed Saudi Arabia to have lost its way and saw it as an imperative to not only rid the country of ‘western perversion’, but to also bring it back to a ‘purer’ form of Islam. Otaybi and his brother-in-law, Qahtani, gathered a group of a few hundred devotees to enter Mecca’s holiest Mosque during hajj (pilgrimage). Taking hostages, Otaybi demanded King Khalid to step down. This ‘mahdist’ group occupied the mosque (whereby it desired to establish a theocratic state), for nearly two weeks. It was quelled when French and Pakistani forces, scrambled together by the royal family in desperation to secure KSA’s legitimacy, stormed the Mosque, killing Qahtani and capturing Otaybi. However, King Khalid had to seek a ‘fatwa’ (religious decree) beforehand from the ulama to allow those forces to be given access to the Mosque to remove the insurgents. The ulama sought the opportunity to push for an amending of relations between the state and religion. In turn for allowing access, it wanted more power to affect policies, which it got after the recapture of the Grand Mosque. This increase in power meant that the Monarch gave Wahhabi clerics more decision making abilities and agreed to help export its religious ideology (Wahhabism) globally in the oncoming decades.
With the reforging of this alliance between the state and religion, Saudi Arabia started to reverse the modernisation that had gripped it in the 60’s and 70’s. The ulama began to impose stricter Islamic law (Sharia) upon the country: censoring media, enforcing greater restrictions on women and banning things like alcohol. Forcing women to cover up, either with an abaya or with hijab, KSA ended the liberal experimentation and started to enforce traditional roles upon Saudi women. King Khalid’s successor, King Fahd, allowed for the formation of the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices’ (CPVPV), which intended to maintain these laws. It did this through the Religious police who were given greater reign to enforce dress code, sex segregation (aptly denoted by some as ‘sex apartheid’), the Male Guardianship system and ensure the domination of Islamic state policy. If a woman should be seen in public unaccompanied by her Guardian, then the religious police could take her and lock her up in a ‘care home’, which is a prison for women. In the education system, more schools had to have religious studies. In this way, the ulama wanted to regain Saudi Arabia’s status as an Islamic nation and ensure ‘Islamic values’ were spread to its populace—more orthodox values, as opposed to liberal ones. This ‘Wahhabi’ imposition on Saudi society did not come without its resistance.
Wherever there are those who are willing to subjugate others, there will always be a small pocket of dissenters willing to raise their voices against tyranny and defy state law. This was the case in Riyadh in 1990, where a couple dozen women drove cars throughout Saudi Arabia’s capital. Knowing perfectly well the risks, these women took their guardians’ cars and drove them—defiant of the law. Paying with the revoking of their passports and jail time, such a demonstration only shows the desire of women to have rights and sheer desperation of the Saudi government to keep its legitimacy through force. In addition, as it clamps down harder, there will be more resistance to it as women refuse to be silent. This ‘fire’ to have rights cannot be extinguished merely by physical force, as is evident with the continuation of such protests in the 21stcentury.
Moving to end the Male Guardianship system
Movements have flurried with the advent of the internet and Social media, as more women gain access to platforms that allow them to voice their experiences under the Male Guardianship System. Despite KSA banning certain social media sites and apps, such as ‘Skype’, ‘Facebook’ and ‘Whatsapp’, sites like ‘Twitter’ and ‘Instagram’ remain, providing a venue for women to write and share videos of what life is like in KSA. Well there are many women who have to adorn pseudonyms to protect their identity from Saudi Authorities, there are those brave few who choose to come out publically—despite the costs. Saudi women activists like Wajeha Huwaider, a woman who was arrested for posting a video of herself driving a car in Riyadh in 2008, and Manal al-Sharif, a woman who launched ‘Women2Drive’ campaign that sought to teach Saudi women to drive in 2011, both have been in the public eye and have protested the ban on women driving. Aziza Yousef is another activist who is involved in the highlighting of women’s rights abuses in KSA. Highlighting a couple cases in 2014 (one of them being where a woman died on campus in Riyadh after not being given access to paramedics, all because of not having a Male Guardian), Aziza sought to petition the Shura Council with other activists to demand an end to Male control over women. These activists seek to highlight the grave human rights violations that Saudi Arabia is guilty of and have inspired many Saudi women to take up a new mantra. A mantra that has since gone on to define a movement: ‘I am my own Guardian’.
‘“When you are born a girl in KSA, you will feel that the only crime that you have committed is being born into the wrong sex.” I am forced to love someone I hate. However, I am not the only one. There are many like me in my country. Many women who suffer as I do. We want our freedom from this tyranny. We want the Male Guardian system to end. This is my wish. My name is Aisha. I am just another woman who lives in KSA.“-Aisha
[Writer’s note: full story, as well as many others that I have received, will be attached in the appendix of this essay.]
In mid-2016, Saudi women took to twitter to start a movement to end the Male Guardianship system. Tweeting under various hashtags, such as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, #TogetherToEndMaleGaurdianship and #سعوديات_نطلب_اسقاط_الولايه (Abolish the male Guardianship system), Saudi Women started to raise awareness of what harrowing experiences that happen in KSA. Many of these women, which included activists like Hala Al dosari, began posting videos and their stories of oppression, and began to demand an end to Male Guardianship and Saudi Women’s liberation. On its 159th day, at the time of writing this, #سعوديات_نطلب_اسقاط_الولايه this Arabic hashtag is the primary one that many Saudis use to voice their concerns. Some of the stories included in this hashtag are very horrifying and provide just a glimpse into the life of Saudi women. Many of these stories include domestic abuse cases, where the Male Guardian has subjected their daughters and wives to torture, psychological manipulation and rape, and have gotten away with it! (Human Rights Watch wrote an excellent piece in July 2016 called, ‘Boxed In’, which highlighted many experiences from Saudi women.) Highlighting the injustice and discrimination of the system, the movement to end Male Guardianship has a couple goals, which many of those involved would agree with:
- Abolish the Male Guardianship System.
- End the ban on Women driving.
- Acknowledge human rights for women.
However, in order to achieve these goals, Saudi Arabia needs to acknowledge the abuses of its government upon its own people. The Saudi government is reluctant to do this and at times denies its treatment of women. This is evident with it saying one thing to United Nations Human Rights Council, but doing another thing within the Kingdom. (It is a sad state of affairs when KSA is Chair of the Human Rights Council of the UN, as it currently is and has been ever since 2015.) Prior to the current King Salman, King Abdullah had made small concessions to international pressure to give women greater rights. Electing thirty female members to the Shura Council, more as a publicity stunt than anything else, Abdullah made snail progressions that are still not enough. There needs to be more action.
Within the movement, there are both non-Saudis and Saudis alike who do their part to raise awareness of the plight of Saudi women. Those who are against the movement claim it to have a ‘western agenda’ in mind, because of the involvement of western individuals. This ‘rationale’ follows the same conspiratorial mindset of those who claimed that Otaybi’s zealots, such as the Ayatollah of Iran, were ‘CIA-backed agents’. In other words, it is ridiculous at best and seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the movement at worst. There is an international presence within the movement, but what must not be forgotten is that the movement is for Saudi Women’s liberation. Saudi women come first and their concerns for rights are the focus of the movement. In a nation where a woman can have her entire life dictated to by a Male guardian, where this guardian can take away her rights to go to school or seek medical assistance and so on, it is imperative to raise awareness of her struggles and seek justice to end them. Not just because she is Saudi, but because she is human. The struggle for Saudi Women’s rights is a part of the larger struggle for a better humanity.
The fight for Saudi Women’s rights is just one of the many fights that exist in the Arab world. Across the Middle East, women undergo their own struggle against oppression, whether it be from the totalitarian forces of ISIS to the theocratic imams of Iran, each one battles for freedom. In each case, there are those who have no personal stake in an issue, but choose to take the side of the victim and aid them in their struggle. Being motivated by a fire that burns within, these humans take up Bertrand Russell’s injunction to ‘Remember your humanity and forget the rest’. Refusing to be spectators of injustice and doing what they can to help. Reminding those facing oppression to continue to raise their voices, as silence is what gives tyranny power. Never forget the power of words.
The government of Saudi Arabia cannot ignore forever its populace’s voices.
Though it may try to, it will not win.
Saudi Women are too strong for that.
Never forget that.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson (11/12/2016)
-Aisha’s story: http://philosophyismagic.com/a-womans-struggle-aishas-story/
I do not care anymore for this life.
I have become empty inside, as a result of the abuse around me.
Everyone is against me and accuse me of doing sexual things that I have not done!
They make me out to be an oppressor, but it is they who support an oppressor!
When I was nine years old, my father sexually abused me. But I didn’t stay quiet, and I told my mother about what he did to me. It was the worst thing that I did, as he only became angrier and acted crazy. He expected me to be quiet, but I refused! Mother told me to tell her if anyone touched you inappropriately, then I had to always speak up. I never expected it to be my father!
As a result of me speaking up, he became very abusive to me. He would deliberately scare me and try to kill me, but my mother would stand in his way and she would threaten him that she would tell everybody about what he did to me. I was only a child and I would not sleep for some nights because I was afraid of him as he always threatens to kill me. He would tell me, “by god I will nail your head to the floor!” When we moved to another house I was relieved to find the room me and my sisters shared had a lock. I started locking the door each night but he would still threaten me that he would insert a gun from the window and shoot me from there. I spent nights sleeping in the corners of the room so the gun wouldn’t reach me. Why does he do this?
I want to understand why this happened to me? I’m a person who hasn’t done anything wrong, I was a ‘model’ girl. I did what I was supposed to do, from prayer to listen to my mother. As the years went on, he continue to deny me things. He tied to prevent me from going to school, but I would go each year and felt involved in a constant fight! Some days I was afraid he would see me and hit me infront of my friends. When I would come off the bus, he would slap me. Even my bus driver tried to stop him. These efforts were in vain, as he would continue to humiliate me and abuse me by telling how he wants to take me out of school.
He wouldn’t give me an allowance even. Everything I owned were hand me downs from my sisters and mother since I was a child. I used to wear my brother’s shoes at school because he was the only one who was close to my age at the time and I remember the girls in school would make fun of me since they were boys’ shoes. Even my name he put it in his company so he can prevent me from supporting myself (I never understood why he did this.) He refuses to support me and doesn’t allow me to support myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m experiencing severe depression. I’m always thinking about suicide, especially in the last couple of months. But I always think about my mother and my siblings and I don’t want to leave them alone.
He doesn’t even allow me to go to the hospital. I have asthma, and a many time I get severe attacks where I can’t breathe and my mother tells him take her to the hospital but he would say No, let her die. I want her to.
My father is just despicable. He’s the worst person ever.
He would lock me up in my room for days. My mother would bring me food from the window. Even the bathroom, I would only go when he’s not in the house and if he’s back I could never go in. I would avoid drinking anything so that I don’t need to go.
He’s always helping everyone, even some of his friends’ daughters so that one would believe us. When I call the police after he hits me they would ask me, what did you do? Then they would give me numbers to call none of which I get a response. So I lose hope.
When I called human rights, they called him and he lied to them and told them that he loves me and cares about what’s best for me and that he needs me at home and the worker believed him. He’s a liar. And when the worker called me again to make sure, my father threatened my mother, that if I don’t shut up he’s going to get an official form that proved I’m crazy and that they would take me forcibly to a mental institute.
By god everything I told you is nothing compared to what he’s done to me. I literally want to die. He’s not allowing me to live. He intervenes and prevent me from everything even what I wear. I dreamt of being a teacher. Or to just live a normal life like every other girl. God has gave him many things. He has many foundations under his name. Sometimes I feel that god is unjust. This oppressive man who’s stopping my life and future is just so blessed.