Male guardianship laws are about patriarchy, not religion

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Despite advances in women’s rights, guardianship laws that give male parents control over the women in their lives remain the most significant barrier to gender equality. But Islamic law is not the real culprit, writes Yousra Samir Imran.

Three women wearing the traditional niqab and black abayas and a Saudi man relax on the Corniche waterfront on June 22, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. [Getty]

Police in New South Wales, Australia are trying to piece together the deaths of Saudi sisters Asra Abdullah Alsehli and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli after their bodies were found in their apartment in June with no clear signs of injury. Apparently, they had already been dead for a month by the time they were found.

New details have emerged that they attended a queer event in January and perhaps fear of being persecuted for their gender identity may have been part of the reason they were seeking asylum in Australia. They also feared that a private detective was following them.

This heartbreaking story is not the first of its kind – hundreds, if not thousands of women each year escape at risk from the Gulf States to live a life free from the shackles of the male guardianship system, a legal system that infantilizes women. women and allows men to abuse their female relatives. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws are by far the most draconian.

Guardianship laws, common across the region, deprive women of agency over their lives. The Gulf States’ counter-argument to those who point to the assault on women’s rights in the region is to point to the high number of successful women in their fields.

“What’s the point of being one of the top politicians in the land if your ministry depends on the permission of your husband, father, or male guardian?”

And although it is appreciable that in most of the Gulf countries the number of women pursuing higher education exceeds the number of men, or that in the United Arab Emirates there are nine women ministers (more women ministers than we have in our current cabinet in the UK), or that Saudi Arabia has the third highest proportion of female entrepreneurs in the world, it’s just not good enough.

In the eyes of the law, women remain inferior and spend their whole lives under the control of a male guardian who has the power to make decisions on your behalf and whose permission you need to work, travel, book a hotel room or get a driver’s license.

What’s the point of being one of the highest politicians in the land if your ministry depends on the permission of your husband, father or male guardian?

Guardianship laws also affect expatriate women living in the Gulf, and particularly women from other Arab countries whose families may adhere to similar social norms regarding women’s place and behavior in society.

Due to the sponsorship system, women who have accompanied male relatives to live in the Gulf, or women born in Gulf countries, are also blocked from asking their male sponsor for permission to work, obtain a driving license and getting married, among others. things.

It is incredibly difficult as a working woman to transfer your sponsorship to that of the company you work for if you have a male relative living in the country, as the Ministry of Interior in most Gulf States prefers you place under the patronage of the latter, literally giving this male guardian control of your life.

I went through this when I was working in the Gulf and wanted to transfer my own sponsorship from my dad to my employer and was told I couldn’t unless he left the country or died. Even then, it would transfer to my younger brother. Can you imagine having to ask permission to live your life from a brother who is ten years younger than you?

While expatriate women don’t normally need permission to travel, their male guardian can still issue a travel ban without their knowledge if they want to ban them from leaving the country – another grim reality with which I have direct experience.

People talk about Saudi Arabia’s supposed ‘modernization’ since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) lifted driving ban for women, allowed women to travel without needing government approval a male guardian and recently allowed women to live alone without the permission of a male guardian (when until recently women were arrested or forcibly disappeared when they tried to do so), but ask yourself why he also arrested all the women’s rights activists who for decades had campaigned for women to drive?

What we need to understand is that MbS did not lift these guardianship laws and bans because he truly believes in women’s rights. On the contrary, his message was clear: “I, as a benevolent leader, give you these rights, and you will only get your rights when I decide to distribute them – anyone else who tries to campaign for an end to these laws is dissenting”. .’

It was an appeasement policy (mainly Western appeasement), granting some rights to women, but the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia is still alive and well. Women still cannot marry, get out of prison, divorce or leave a domestic violence shelter without the permission of a male guardian, and Saudi women still cannot pass citizenship to children born to a male. non-Saudi father.

Why then won’t the Gulf States end guardianship laws? It boils down to two things: a traditionalist interpretation of the Koran and an appeasement of the highly patriarchal tribal system. In all the Gulf countries, most families are from millennial tribes in which men are the patriarchs, and the support of the sheikhs of each tribe still plays a role in the legitimacy of each Gulf ruling family and their ability to govern. without uprisings.

“If the Gulf countries can reinterpret Islamic law on Islamic finance so that they can still charge interest by simply calling it ‘bank fees’, then they can revisit male guardianship while remaining in line with religion. “

Most of these tribes still hold extremely patriarchal views related to the concepts of female members of their family representing family honor. Guardianship laws control the behavior of Gulf women to prevent them from doing anything considered culturally “shameful”.

The Gulf States still claim that they cannot abolish the guardianship system and empower women as this is against Sharia. But it is important to note that they follow a Wahhabi understanding of Sharia which is, again, highly patriarchal.

What they don’t realize – or perhaps don’t want to realize because it doesn’t serve their interests in maintaining patriarchy – is that the concepts of wilaayah (guardianship) and qawwamah (the idea that men have a degree on and support women) that they designate as a divine law necessitating the guardianship system can be viewed through an egalitarian lens that will allow them to continue to adhere to Sharia while abolishing a discriminatory and unjust legal system.

Some Islamic laws, including those of the wilaayah and qawwamah, are specific to certain socio-historical contexts and can be reinterpreted and reapplied as circumstances and socioeconomic norms change. At the time the Quranic verses regarding the male qawwamah were revealed, men were generally breadwinners and their status was defined by how they provided for women economically.

But we now live in a time when women earn and are also breadwinners. Thus, as Asma Lamrabet points out in her essay in the book Men at the controls? Rethinking authority in the Muslim legal traditionthe qawwamah becomes egalitarian as all genders contribute to society and contribute to the family in economic and non-economic ways.

As for the wilaayah and male guardianship, it was specific to the society at the time the Quranic verses were revealed, a very archaic society in which early Muslims were persecuted and killed. This is no longer the case in the Gulf countries, where the male wilaayah is redundant.

If the Gulf countries can reinterpret Islamic law in Islamic finance so that they can still charge interest by simply labeling it as “bank fees”, then they can revisit male guardianship while remaining in line with religion.

What you cannot do is choose where you can and cannot reinterpret the Quran. The truth is that it is patriarchal interests, not religion, that keep them from abolishing male guardianship laws.

Yousra Samir Imran is an Egyptian British writer and author based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA

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The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.

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