Male guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia: A web of Wahhabi-style Islam and culture

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The Guardian, a British newspaper, thankfully can still be read without a paywall, which is how I saw a recent piece on how Saudi women have taken to battling the country’s male guardianship system via Twitter.

Twitter, as you may remember, has become an extremely powerful social network in Saudi society, as its users can remain anonymous and push for social changes like women finally being allowed to drive. I wrote about that here.

In explaining the Twitter phenomenon, the Guardian leaves one thing untold; the origins of the country’s oppressive laws concerning the inability of women to do anything without a male accompanying her.

Turns out the reasons, in reality, have nothing to do with a clear teaching of Islam. But first we start here:

Women in Saudi Arabia are riding a “Twitter wave” of activism that they hope will lead to the abolition of a legal guardianship system that gives men authority over their lives.
There has been an “explosion of advocacy” on Twitter over the past two years, say the authors of a report – the first of its kind produced by Saudi women – documenting how women in the kingdom have been fighting for their rights since 1990.
The move to social media has been spearheaded by younger women who, emboldened by the Arab spring and the crown prince’s vision for the country, have embraced the medium as an increasingly important tool for change.

Some 40 percent of 6.3 million Saudi Twitter users are women, the piece says. Before social media, it was difficult to know what was happening in the country other than the official line. That changed as the populace embraced one of the highest per capita Twitter rates in the world. Then:

Chief among the topics tweeted about is the call to abolish the system that requires a woman to have a male guardian -- be it a father, husband, brother or son -- who makes crucial decisions for her. Under the practice, male approval is required for travel or study outside the country, to get a passport, to get married or to leave prison.
The hashtag #AbolishGuardianship was created in July 2016; two months later, an online petition signed by 14,000 people was delivered to the royal court. The hashtag is used to highlight cases of abuse, rally support, and put pressure on the authorities to act.

Why is this such an entrenched custom in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to rein in its women in such a fashion? The Guardian didn't say, so I looked elsewhere.

I found a conservative Saudi female viewpoint in the Huffington Post that acknowledged the system can be abused but that there’s nothing seriously wrong with it.

This AP story only somewhat referred to the Islamic underpinnings of this law. The key, as always, is to note that there is no one Islamic take on this issue. 

Powerful Wahhabi clerics in the kingdom support the imposition of male guardianship based on a verse in the Quran that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women.
Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Quranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes. Other Muslim-majority countries, even those with Shariah courts, do not have similarly restrictive male guardianship laws.
(Human Rights Watch) says the Saudi system effectively renders adult women as legal minors … Because of a variety of rules and informal restrictions, women in Saudi Arabia cannot make decisions for themselves “because they need to worry if their dad or father is going to agree.” This could include signing a lease, getting a job, traveling, studying or getting married. ...

This discussion in Quora explains the hadiths (commentaries on Islam) backing male guardianship (“women are weak,” it says in part) and a CNN story that ran last year on Saudi women seeking asylum in the United States after having fled their country and the male guardianship system. The women who had fled had also left their religion behind.

Aero magazine had a long essay about the hopeless lives of women who can’t study, work, marry or even leave the house without her father’s permission. It also points out that policies were much more liberal in Saudi Arabia before 1979, when the male guardianship system got more onerous. And this New York Times piece asks the question most of the other articles are asking: What good are laws allowing women to drive if they can’t even leave their homes without a man’s permission? 

The best piece I found was by Caryle Murphy, a former religion writer for the Washington Post in this 2014 piece for USA Today. She pointed out:

The guardian system as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia is not ordained or mandated by Islamic law. Rather, Saudi women are kept under the thumb of men by a skein of Saudi tribal traditions and customs that have been given an Islamic gloss.
This is "absolutely not" how Islam meant women to be treated, Sara said. "This is not Islam. It's different from the real concept of Islam."

The article goes on to illustrate the ridiculous lengths this system goes to keep women under the thumb of men; even not allowing a pregnant woman about to give birth access to a hospital unless her guardian is along.

Anyone covering Islam would do well to study up on this social system that enslaves and endangers so many women. Allowing women to drive was an easy change compared to cutting out male guardians. As Murphy writes:

Most significantly, the guardian system is unlikely to be scrapped anytime soon because it is so ingrained in the Saudi mentality. "At the end of the day, I feel our problem here is about the culture," said Dahlan. "Even if we change laws and regulations, but without changing the mindsets of people, women will continue to be mistreated."

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