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Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws under fire

July 17, 2016

Saudi laws requiring women to have male guardians have been reformed in recent years, but still restrict and endanger them, Human Rights Watch says in a new report. The Gulf kingdom rejects criticism of its society.

Symbolbild Saudi Arabien Frau Politik
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Nureldine

A report by the New York-based rights group released Sunday says guardianship laws bar women from traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or exiting prison without the consent of a male relative and remain the most significant impediment to realizing women's rights in the kingdom.

HRW says the Saudi system effectively renders adult women as legal children. The report also cites the kingdom's ban on women driving automobiles and an almost complete segregation of the sexes as further impediments to gender equality.

But the report drew immediate criticism from a Saudi government rights official, who said the system was designed to protect and help women, and that it was less restrictive than portrayed by the rights group.

"It conflates the laws on women's guardianship that authorities are being asked to amend or develop with customs prevailing in society that may... take time to change," Mufleh al-Qahtani, chairman of the government-sanctioned National Society for Human Rights, told the Reuters news agency.

Dozens of Saudi women interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers said their lives were subject to male supervision when it came to applying for a passport, leaving the country, getting married and accessing courts and medical treatment.

A 25-year-old woman referred to as Zahra, whose father used to beat her and later refused to allow her to travel overseas to study, was one of those quoted in the report.

"Whenever someone tells me, 'You should have a five-year plan,' I say I can't. I'll have a five-year plan and then my dad would disagree. Why have a plan?" she reportedly told HRW.

Slow pace of reforms

In 2011, the late Saudi King Abdullah gave women the right to vote and run for office in local elections, and in 2013 he appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, a "consultative" body that discusses new laws and advises the government on legislation. Then, in April, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled an ambitious plan to transform the economy by 2030, which envisages increasing women's participation in the workforce to 30 percent from 22 percent.

The report's author, Kristine Beckerle, argued that the kingdom could not achieve this vision if it did not abolish male guardianship.

"Guardianship really creates a system that is ripe for abuse," said Beckerle, a fellow in HRW's Mideast division.

Saudi Arabia's legal system and social norms are underpinned by an ultraconservative Islamic ideology widely known as Wahhabism. Powerful Wahhabi clerics in the kingdom base the guardianship system on a verse in the Koran stating that men are the protectors and maintainers of women.

Yet other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Koranic concepts such as equality and respect between the sexes and note that other Muslim-majority countries, even those with Sharia courts, do not have similarly restrictive male guardianship laws.

jar/tj (AP, Reuters)