Saudi Arabian women have signed a controversial petition to end male guardianship. We are ready to pay the price, Hatoon Als Fassi told DW.
DW: Ms Hatoon Al Fassi, you are one of the famous women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia and a professor for woman's history at "King Saud University." Over 14,500 people in Saudi Arabia have signed a petition sent to King Salman calling for an end to the kingdom's guardianship system, which requires women to have male permission for most of life's tasks. That is a remarkable number for Saudi Arabia. How could this new collective consciousness develop in very traditional Saudi society?
Hatoon Al Fassi: We cannot tell where this sample of signatories have come from; we need to do another statistical analysis and we don't have much information. One question was asked, what do you do. But in general and from the social media that keeps the trend of this campaign going every day - today it reached its 95th day - we can say that it comes from middle class women and men, educated and young. Most of the indications go in this direction and with the support of many men.
What exactly do you want to change?
With this petition we wanted first to change the status quo that renders Saudi women a "thing” that has no will of its own. The petition is a call to stop and end the system of guardianship for women. This means to stop letting women who are mature and adult to need permission of their guardian (i.e. father, brother, husband, even son) to allow her to study, work, travel, receive a scholarship, be admitted to hospital, undergo an operation related to her own womb, and even to be released from prison after finishing a sentence. This system has nothing to do with religion, however - women were always under the impression that it is so. Our petition and campaign clarified many of these myths as well as showed by proof and evidence that this is a mere patriarchal system that violates women's human rights.
Is the male dominated society in Saudis-Arabia ready for this change?
The conservative society is under the impression that guardianship is religion, so we have seen resistance by many of that community; however, many well-known religious scholars have appeared and spoke out saying that what this campaign is asking for is legitimate and it is true that there is no guardianship on the adult sane mature woman, to name one, Sheikh Abdullah al Menee, member of the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious commission in Saudi Arabia that reports to the king directly.
How might King Salman position himself in this question?
The Royal court hasn't reacted yet. Usually, it rarely reacts. But we have made it a point to go through the official channels so that we will not be blamed in future. The royal court told our fellow campaigner, Ms Aziza al Youssef, to send this petition with signatures by post. They differentiate between what they receive and accept there and what they don't. They can receive the personal matters directly at the court, but what is considered as public, they direct a sender to send it by mail. We hope that the King will take our request and demands seriously, but we do not know how the advisers filter the king's mail and what reaches him and what does not. It is for the benefit of society that our demands be taken up with immediate action and a change of the law.
What price are women ready to pay for more rights, what kind of sacrifices are they prepared to take?
Definitely there is a price to be paid for our open activism, but we don't have a choice. However, some of us have paid more than others. Some are denied travel, some are living abroad and can't come back, some are being fought against in their businesses, or in their academic freedom, or banned from teaching or writing; some have had their reputations slandered, some have been imprisoned with different excuses. Each of us has had their share. We don't know how much longer we can keep this up until our demands are recognized and Saudi women are considered full citizen. But, what we know for sure is that we are not giving up.