RIYAD (Reuters) – The leak of an 18-year-old Saudi woman from what she described as an abusive family has sparked opposition to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, still a major constraint for women despite the Muslim country’s efforts conservative to open.
Some freedoms were granted under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ended the ban on driving for women, relaxed restrictions on mixing the sexes and defended firsts such as allowing women to serve in the armed forces. .
Yet these changes have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of some of the activists who have campaigned for decades to improve women’s rights – as well as Muslim preachers who are opposed to it.
Many activists are calling for an end to the guardianship system, which has slowly eroded over the years but remains in place.
Under the system, every Saudi woman is assigned a male relative – often a father or husband but sometimes an uncle, brother or even a son – whose approval is required to marry, obtain a passport, and travel to abroad.
The plight of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun, who escaped his family last weekend while on vacation in Kuwait, recalls the cases of other Saudi women who fled abuse to be forcibly returned to the kingdom and without ever hearing from it again.
Amid global outrage against Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, Qanun’s tweets from Bangkok airport sparked an online campaign. She barricaded herself in a hotel room for hours until the Thai government reversed its decision to send her home.
In some countries, her adulthood has reportedly prevented authorities from telling her family anything about her. In Saudi Arabia, her gender meant that she was her father’s ward.
“Take the trusteeship away and we won’t all migrate” was trending this week on Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
Mai, who identified herself as a 36-year-old doctor, said she was embarrassed about having two children and a Harvard University degree, but was still considered a minor.
“I am trusted to make life and death decisions for patients, I am trusted to raise children … but I am not trusted to make my own decisions about MY life. The irony! # EndMaleGuardianship, ”she tweeted.
Qanun has also been attacked on social media for humiliating her family and renouncing Islam, pointing to the delicate balance Prince Mohammed must find to reform Saudi society without destabilizing it.
The status of guardianship between law and custom makes it a thorny issue for Prince Mohammed, who indicated last year that he was in favor of ending the system but did not approve its annulment.
“If I say yes to this question, it means that I am creating problems for families who do not want to give their daughters freedom,” he told American magazine The Atlantic.
Without a codified legal system to accompany the texts constituting sharia, or Islamic law, Saudi police and justice have long invoked social customs to enforce certain prohibitions against women. Many aspects of guardianship flow from informal practices rather than specific laws.
Saudi Arabia, one of the most segregated nations in the world, is ranked 138 out of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study of how women fare in economic participation and politics, health and education.
Activists launched the “I Am My Own Guardian” campaign in 2016 demanding legal representation.
King Salman issued an order the following year allowing women to benefit from services such as education and health care without the consent of a male guardian, although rights groups say this does not is implemented only on a limited basis.
Other challenges remain. There is no formal ban on women buying or renting property, but it can be difficult for them to do so without a male relative, according to rights groups.
Authorities removed restrictions on women in the labor code and ended formal requirements for them to get permission from a guardian to work, but some employers still require it and are not penalized for doing so. .
The kingdom also ended requirements that a woman had to bring a male relative to identify her in court, and women can get licenses and drive cars without their guardian’s approval.
Mohammed al-Issa, a former justice minister who sits on the kingdom’s highest clerical body, told Reuters last year that there was no reason women should be barred from obtaining passports or to travel without the consent of a male guardian, but it may take time for the company to come to terms with this.
Some Saudi women don’t want to wait.
“We have the right (to be) treated like adults since we are over 18,” a woman named Fatin wrote online. “This tutelage is nothing more than a modern system of slavery!
Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Giles Elgood