In Saudi Arabia, there is currently a legal male guardianship system that rules the ways Saudi women live. This means that once a Saudi woman is born, her father is her legal guardian, and once she is married, her husband becomes her legally documented guardian. They have these guardians until the day they die. The guardianship system also entails that women cannot be recorded as legal guardians for their children, must gain approval from their husbands before applying for a passport, must be accompanied by their guardians (father or husband) when traveling (even for educational purposes), and are prohibited from earning a paying job without the approval of their guardians.
The nation’s leaders and the Saudi men who stand by this system defend their laws and oppressive actions using Islamic guidelines. They quote Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, when attempting to justify their actions. However, professional Muslim scholars and I, a Muslim woman, will tell you that the religion of Islam in no way oppresses Muslim women, justifies any oppressive behavior, nor does the Qur’an contain any information that implies or explicitly states that men are superior to women. The issue here is not solely Saudi Arabia’s attempts in disadvantaging and belittling women, but it’s also the the fact that the Saudi government is communicating Islam, to its citizens and to other nations, as an oppressive and unjust religion. Uneducated citizens of Saudi Arabia and citizens around the globe may begin to internalize these messages and reinforce the false and harmful stereotypes that revolve around Islam.
As of August 2019, multiple reforms were passed to enable women to travel without a guardian, allow them to obtain family records on their own, to be protected from work discrimination, and to make their own decisions about their body as they relate to pregnancy and birth. While these reforms mark a big turning point in Saudi women’s fight for equality, the country is still rooted in systemic sexism and injustices. This is evident in the newly passed laws, as they still refer to women as in need of legal guardians. These laws continue to belittle women by presenting them as incompetent on their own and in need of the assistance of a dominant male.
Saudi women are the subalterns, individuals who are excluded from the conversations around policies (new and old) that will continue to affect them. The subalterns are the individuals who are purposefully left out of a certain story or discussion despite the fact that the discussion yields their presence and input. The Saudi women are the subalterns in the sense that they have not been heard from for generations. Although the nation has deemed it legal for women to travel without their guardian, they still are not viewed as their own individual selves. The terminology used in these policies is proof that Saudi women were not involved enough, if any, in the decision making and policy making process. While the policies may appear progressive on the surface, there is still a long way to go as the Saudi women must fight against the systemic sexist practices of their country.
- Here is a link to one article that explains in more detail what a male guardianship system entails and what it means for women.
- Below is an image of a Saudi woman holding her passport and a sign to protest the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia. This image circulated around social media and drew attention from multiple women’s rights activists.
Citation for Discussion:
- Ending Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia. (2016). Equality Now. https://www.equalitynow.org/ending_male_guardianship_in_saudi_arabia