by Rinad Taha
The number of male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia that restrict women’s movement is a major infringement on human rights. These laws require women to obtain permission before joining the labor market, exiting prison, getting married, accessing health care, or acquiring a passport. The male guardianship systems treat women as dependent minors who must remain under the complete control of their husbands, fathers, and other male relatives. Furthermore, the system restricts women from travelling without a male relative’s consent. The Saudi Arabian government has attempted to reverse some of these male guardianship regulations, but the systems prevail due to a lack of enforcement and only minor attempts to repeal the main aspects of the system. Even with attempts to reverse some of the regulations, there have been no attempts to eliminate the specific law that requires consent to travel. In order to truly end male guardianship practices, reforms must be properly enforced and motivated by a change in cultural ideologies.
Statement of Issue/ Problem
The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia consists of a series of laws that only allow women freedoms with the presence or permission of a male relative/ family member. Women in Saudi Arabia are under complete control of their male relatives and must suffer the consequences of the decisions that are made for them. Under the male guardianship system, women are not allowed access to healthcare, education, or procure rights in the public sphere. Women are not allowed to travel or drive motor vehicles without their guardians’ permission . These aspects of the male guardianship system make up an oppressive framework that is the largest infringement on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The system affects women’s lives every day across all economic classes. The women of Saudi Arabia have called to end the male guardianship system but most attempts have been limited and unsuccessful  . Women have attempted to enter the public sphere by entering the labor market and to enter the political sphere by gaining the right to vote, but these attempts have been unsuccessful because male consent is still required to practice these rights.
The problem with the human rights violations in the male guardianship system is that Saudi Arabia’s source of policies supposedly stem from the Quran. The constitution is based on the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) . Features of the guardianship system are enforced by law through public institutions including court systems, labor institutions, medical institutions, and government institutions. The institutions that support the system call for government legislation to explicitly repeal the system; otherwise, it will continue to permit human rights violations. The part of the male guardianship system that will primarily be explored in the policy paper is the law that prohibits women from traveling without a male family member . The policy recommendations proposed will reanalyze Sharia law to reinterpret women’s roles in Saudi society. The proposals will also explore the law requirements that the CSW could impose and how they could be fully implemented. The purpose of this paper is to develop a policy brief that could effectively eliminate the travel ban feature of the male guardianship system, and officially grant women freedoms within the public sphere that will ultimately lead them to freedom in the private sphere.
Origin/History of the Problem and Current Context
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established with a strong tie between religion and state. In the 1960’s King Faisal pushed for a more progressive kingdom granting women the right to seek education; however, his actions were viewed as conforming to western ideals and stepping away from Islamic ideologies. Faisal was later assassinated by his nephew but left a void between the reform and the next ruler. The next king, King Khalid, was forced by insurgents who raided Mecca, to reestablish relations with the ulema. The ulema were a group of Islamic scholars that specialize in Islamic law and sought to recreate the connection between religion and state . The influence of the ulema ultimately led to the end of the modernization policies that Faisal established. An association with state and religion continues to develop in Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s . The ulema imposed sharia law in Saudi Arabia and established it as an “Islamic” nation. New laws were established that forced women to adopt traditional roles and erased women’s freedom’s under the newly formed male guardianship system. The CPVPV, Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices, was created by King Fahd to ensure that the regulations and policies imposed by the ulema remained in place . The CPVPV empowered religious police to protect the male guardianship system and punish those who did not abide by it. For example, women were subject to imprisonment if they strayed from the proper Islamic dress code.
Critique of Policy Options
Even today there have been few attempts to grant women their basic human rights and no attempts to abolish the requirements for women to obtain male consent for traveling. Some of these attempts include allowing women to enter the workforce without male permission, allowing women to run as candidates, and providing women access to government services dealing with domestic violence . Following the hearing of the United Nations Human Rights Council, there have been reforms to improve women’s access to government institutions like obtaining identification cards without male guardianship . However, these attempts have not eradicated the male guardianship system because it has not abolished the ideology behind the system.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) drafted the declaration on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women known as CEDAW . CEDAW describes discrimination against women as:
“any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field .”
Other elements of the document prohibit discrimination in employment and housing, prohibit domestic violence and sexual assault, and address child custody issues. CEDAW however is only effective because of the willingness of governments to abide by the document and the women’s NGOs attempts to encourage the enforcement of the document. Saudi Arabia became one of the states to accede to the CEDAW in the year 2000; however they refuse to adopt aspects of the document that contradict with their interpretation of Islamic law . This leaves room for Saudi Arabia to discriminate based on their interpretations of their religion regardless of whether violates women’s human rights. Many aspects of Saudi Arabian policies contradict the CEDAW document confirming that although Saudi Arabia acceded to CEDAW, it remains ineffective with its implementation . Saudi Arabia also violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by disregarding a population’s freedom of movement by hindering the right for women to travel outside the country without male consent .
Even after the CEDAW, institutions are still able to choose whether or not to abide by the male guardianship system, specifically employers. Many institutions maintain practices that prohibit women from gaining access to resources without male permission and can do so without penalty. Even though women do have access to vote, the male guardianship system still indirectly prevents them from voting by requiring proof of residency or family identification cards that are difficult for women to obtain. It strategically forces women to suffer these oppressions by prohibiting women from leaving the country without their guardian’s approval. The Saudi Arabian government argues that although there are many human rights violations taking place, there are policies that exist to liberate Saudi women. The problem with the policies is the lack of implementation . With the acceptance of CEDAW, Saudi Arabia initially proposed exceptions with its ratification stating:
- In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.
- The Kingdom does not consider itself bound by paragraph2 of article 9 of the Convention and paragraph 1 of article 29 of the Convention .
These reservations suggest a lack of commitment to implementing CEDAW to its full extent. Article 9 paragraph 2 of CEDAW grants women equal rights with men regarding the nationality of their children . It is also unclear which provisions of the document are incompatible with Islamic Law. In 2008 the Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women document on Saudi Arabia requested “the State party to take immediate steps to end the practice of male guardianship over women, including by awareness-raising campaigns .” The exemption Saudi Arabia gave itself from CEDAW still does not justify women being prohibited from travelling alone. This is evidence that even though Saudi Arabia has technically accepted CEDAW with exclusions, the state still disregards CEDAW’s policies in its own government.
The problem of the lack of implementation of CEDAW lies not only with culture and ideologies but with the laws of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government used to explain that the lack of implementation is due to the fact that aspects of CEDAW are not compatible with Sharia Law but it is clear that even the features that are compatible are not accepted. King Salman recently adopted a directive that gives women greater access to government institutions without a male relative . Yet the directive does not change the law that bars women from traveling abroad without a male relative’s consent. The challenge with the lack of implementation that Saudi Arabia suffers from comes from ideological and cultural practices and norms. Even after small attempts in the past to lift the law that banned women from accessing institutions, many private institutions continued to turn women away without a male relative’s consent. The new order that is issued forces government institutions to allow women full access regardless of consent. In order for there to be successful progress towards women’s rights, there must be a direct order to revise the past policies and expand them to further fulfill women’s freedoms. In order for there to be successful implementation for women’s rights, Saudi Arabian society as a whole must come to acknowledge women as equal to men.
Incidentally, the characteristics of Sharia Law are constantly changing. Other countries that adopt Sharia Law as the constitution, like Iran, have made ratifications concerning outdated practices in the country that were once “sharia” law. The reason why sharia law is not a concrete structure is because it will always be based off of interpretations of the Quran. Different interpretations of the Quran could even change within the same Imam (Islamic prayer leader). Human rights lawyer Sirin Ebadi states that women’s rights are guaranteed within the Islamic framework of governance so long as its interpretation is in the spirit of equality . Interpreting Sharia in the spirit of equality reforms the law while still practicing the fundamental basis of Sharia Law. This proves that sharia law is flexible and does not violate women’s rights in the name of the Quran; instead, it is the extremists who interpret the Quran incorrectly. Saudi Arabia could look to Morocco, who also had male guardianship laws, as evidence for improvement. The Union for Feminine Action and the National Coordination Committee for Changes to the Moudawana and for the Defense of the Rights of Women, collected millions of signatures for reform of the guardianship system . King Hassan II then ordered Islamic jurists to consider the unions’ proposals . This resulted in a number of amendments granting women’s rights, even with the presence of the Ulema. The body was even appointed to participate in the commission reform granting women’s rights to full equality with family and divorce rights . In fact Morocco abolished male guardianship by reevaluating the Quran’s provisions. In fact, the UN could spread awareness about the evolving interpretations of sharia law to bring about this change in cultural ideologies towards Islam and the Quran. The Union for Feminine Action could also collect millions of signatures in Saudi Arabia to support their case and form a formal committee such as the National Coordination Committee for changes in Saudi Arabia to establish a secure platform. With the collection of signatures and guarantee that Islamic jurists will not be compromised (by allowing the presence of the Ulema) King Salman should accept reform according to the jurists decisions. With the new interpretation of sharia law, women would be acknowledged as equals, if not by private institutions then at least by the government. This change in ideology could retract the female travel ban by granting women the right (as legal adults) to freedom of mobility without the need for male consent.
Another approach to eliminate the female travel restrictions is to focus on the origin of the law itself. Culture and ideologies are important to spark change in the state but they must be translated into law to truly be successful. Recently Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN commission on the Status of Women . A possible policy recommendation is that the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, require the UN to demand, as chair in the CSW, that women be included in general assembly meetings. This approach has proven successful in obtaining women’s rights in Morocco. King of Morocco, Muhammad VI, appointed a reform commission and delegated three women to the coordination committee . Dr. El-Hajjami, Doctor of ethical theory and history of feminism in Morocco, states, “the presence of women is significant because it means for the first time, women were involved in the process.”  If The ACLU forced the UN to require all participants in the CSW to have female representatives in meetings, Saudi Arabia’s lawmakers will be encouraged to focus specifically on women’s rights and hopefully terminate the female travel ban.
Furthermore, the ACLU should also require the UN to help advance women’s rights for any state that chooses to become a member of the CSW. In order for Saudi Arabia to continue to participate on the commission, the requirements should include an issue of order to eradicate the requisite of obtaining male consent for women to travel. The UN could make the requirement indirectly by necessitating an elimination of all forms of male guardianship and any violations of the Universal Declaration of Human rights . The successful implementation of the policies will be monitored by requiring NGOs to regularly collect data to ensure the protection of women’s rights violations. This focus reshaping the laws in place, along with the cultural and ideological changes within the country would precipitate liberation for women within the country.
Another way to evaluate existing laws is to reform the male guardianship laws and create clear consequences for institutions who refuse to abide by them. The new order that allows women access to government institutions without male consent should be expanded to private institutions. The laws should abolish the need for male consent in all forms of society that depreciates women down to the rights of adolescents, especially the consent requirement that controls female’s freedom of mobility.
The current ideology of King Salman seems to be that with time, the male guardianship policies will disappear. However, the policies in place to counteract the guardianship laws are not strong enough to erase the system as a whole. There must be changes in the law that explicitly state women’s rights and the consequences for entities that refuse to acknowledge them. Only once the system is eradicated and penalties are implemented to employers and institutions for requiring male consent can there be liberation for the women of Saudi Arabia. Past policies were ineffective because of the poor implementation. Private organizations and government organizations (until recently) could refuse women’s access to their resources. There should be a modification of past reforms and orders expanding to all aspects of the guardianship system and punishments for the refusal to uphold them. With changes in cultural ideologies about women’s roles and the modern reinterpretation of Sharia Law, the system could be successfully abolished.
18. St. “Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: Unedited Version.” Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Saudi Arabia (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
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