SAUDI ARABIA: The Unending Labyrinth of Male Guardianship

NAWAF Al-SABAH WRITES– Rahaf Al-Qunun captured international attention at the beginning of the year as she sought to escape her allegedly abusive family.

Rahaf, who is Arabian, barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to prevent Thai authorities from deporting her. She had been detained at the Bangkok airport while traveling en route to Australia from Kuwait, where she and her parents had been vacationing.

The crisis gained worldwide attention after Rahaf posted her pleas for help on Twitter, which eventually garnered the attention of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which took on her case.

The 18-year-old, who was later granted asylum in Canada, said she wanted to escape the physical and mental abuse of her family, which began when she was 16. She claimed that at one point, they beat her up because she didn’t pray, and locked her in a house for six months because she cut her hair short. There were also threats of murder if she chose to abandon Islam. The Saudi teenager has since dropped her family name, now going by Rahaf Mohammed, since her family disowned her.

While the UNHRC’s decision to take up her plea was commendable, more needs to be done. Rahaf is just one of thousands of women suffering under the patriarchal guardianship system of Saudi Arabia. Male guardianship renders women ‘legal minors,’ as every woman needs to have one—father, uncle, brother, husband, or even a son. Without their approval, a woman isn’t allowed to conduct official business, travel, marry, or work.

Consider this: the Ministry of Social Affairs in Saudi reported 8,016 cases of psychological and physical abuse of women. The number of unreported cases is no doubt higher, as women struggle to report such abuse and do not have court access without the consent of a male relative. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s National Family Protection Program estimates that at least 35 percent of women have experienced abuse, usually at the hands of their legal male guardians.

Rahaf’s case is a direct result of this system. She came close to being deported back to her family because she didn’t have the guardian’s permission to travel. And she is just one. Many who have tried speaking out have suffered worse. Prominent rights activist Samar Badawi, who says she was physically abused by her father, was slapped with a disobedience order (by her father, of course), resulting in 7 months in prison. Similarly, activist Mariam al-Otabi was detained for three months due to the same type of charge by her allegedly abusive father.


Samar Badawi

Surprisingly, though–or maybe not–a study published in 2013 found that 90% of the 8,000 Saudi women surveyed supported the guardianship system. In 2009 and 2013, the country promised to abolish the system, only to make minor adjustments instead, “including no longer requiring permission for women to work and passing a law criminalizing domestic abuse,” the Human Rights Watch reported.

Rahaf’s revolt, one amid many stories, rekindled the fight against the guardianship system. Despite an awareness taking over Saudi, numerous women rights activists continue to endure time in detention, unseen and unheard by the international community.

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