Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system is once again in the spotlight. The latest controversy surrounds a vacationing Saudi couple. After the couple left Saudi Arabia, they were surprised by a text message sent to the husband’s phone from the Saudi Ministry of Interior informing him of the time and airport from which his “dependent” wife had left the Kingdom.
Any dependent (male or female) who wishes to travel outside Saudi Arabia is required to first obtain permission from his or her guardian. Once this permission is received, it is stored in an electronic system. As part of the electronic registration process, the guardian must provide his contact phone number, which the interior ministry uses to notify him anytime one of his dependents leaves the country.
When news about the vacationing Saudi couple became public, the media went crazy over the government’s “e-tracking” system. While the hysteria started in Arabic media outlets, it quickly spread to the French media, where the tracking system was quickly condemned and ridiculed, and is now moving through the English-language press.
The real issue here is not that women are being “electronically traced,” because they aren’t. Guardians are being sent a simple SMS that states that their female-dependants have left the Kingdom – the texts do not provide any further information, such as about the woman’s destination or date of return.
Though the media was right to be outraged, it was mistaken to direct it at the e-tracking system. The real problem is that the guardianship system – which essentially robs women of their basic human rights – still exists in Saudi Arabia today. Human Rights Watch released an in-depth report about the guardianship system in early 2008, urging the country to end the practice and stating that “the Saudi government has sacrificed basic human rights to maintain male control over women.”
While Saudi males cease being dependents at the age of 18, Saudi women essentially remain minors their entire lives. While the media has focused on how this affects women’s right to travel, arguably this infringement is minute compared to the other rights threatened by the guardianship system. For instance, Saudi women need the permission of their male guardians to marry, work, study, and often to make critical decisions regarding their children and healthcare. Though many women are blessed with guardians who are flexible and listen to their needs, these rights should not be left up to chance. By leaving all-important decisions in the control of the male guardian, Saudi’s guardianship law does not protect female citizens but instead threatens their basic rights.
A woman’s guardian must be an immediate relative. As a result, the cycle of guardianship often passes from father to husband. Should a woman’s father pass away, her brother may be her guardian (younger or older). Should her husband pass away, she may be returned to the guardianship of her father or brother, or if she has a son who is old enough, he may become her guardian. Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman who faced the latter reality:
Fatma A., a 40-year-old Saudi woman living in Riyadh, cannot board a plane without written permission from her guardian. As a divorced woman whose father is deceased, the Saudi authorities have now transferred her guardianship to her son. “My son is 23 years old and has to come all the way from the Eastern Province to give me permission to leave the country,” she said.
Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws are highly discriminatory and based on the assumption that women are incapable of controlling their own lives or making their own decisions. It is based on a highly erroneous homogenization of women and completely under-estimates women’s potential for the sake of maintaining male control over Saudi society. Perhaps the worst aspect of the guardian system is, however, that all too often it severely robs women of the pursuit of happiness and deprives them of the kind of lives they wish to live.