June 27, 2018
Some decades ago, I used to read books and
listen to lectures about the liberation of women through Islam. According to
these sources, Muslim women were free from sexual exploitation rampant in the
West. More importantly, Islam guaranteed her the right to vote, conduct a
business, obtain an education and open her own bank account. This happened well
before Western nations accorded these same rights to their own women, we were
reminded. The message was clear: A Muslim woman was a person in her own right,
responsible for her own actions and accorded the same basic social rights as
her male counterpart.
Of course, these sources never mentioned
the obvious: Those very rights were absent in Saudi Arabia, the supposed
heartland of Islam, where last week, women were granted permission to drive for
the first time in 30 years. The driving ban had been overturned by Saudi Crown
Prince Muhammad Bin Salman – as part of his efforts to modernize the kingdom.
The euphoria of the first women who were
granted licences was splashed across the world. “The Saudi revolution begins,”
gushed The Economist, replete with a cover illustration of a woman in a Niqab
whose eyes and arched eyebrows were in the shape of a car. The momentous
occasion was also marked by a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the first-ever holding
cell for women who break traffic laws.
Yet, beneath the gilded PR lie a few ugly
According to Amnesty International, eight
activists who campaigned tirelessly against the driving ban have been jailed
for almost a month. These include Loujain al-Hathloul (who studied at
University of British Columbia), Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, accused by
Saudi authorities of forming a “cell” and threatening national security for
their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s
stability and social fabric.” If found guilty, they may face up to 20 years in
prison. Only Canada and Norway have expressed concern over these arrests.
Some surmise this crackdown is to make it
clear to Saudi society that social norms will not be changed by activism, but
rather, by the decree of one man. If activists are seen to be successful, this
may plant the seeds for larger unrest.
While abolishment of the driving ban should
be celebrated, we must not forget the real target should be the male
guardianship system, whereby a woman must obtain permission by her male
guardian (husband, father, son, uncle, etc) for basic life decisions. No matter
her age or marital or professional status, she remains a legal dependent
throughout her life.
For example, she must obtain her guardian’s
consent to register in school or to study at a university/college within Saudi
Arabia that is away from home. She must get his permission to leave the country
to study abroad.
A woman cannot open a bank account, nor
apply for a credit card, without her guardian’s permission. Employers often
require a guardian’s consent for her employment. Until last year, a woman could
not open a business in her own name.
A Saudi court will only recognize a
marriage with a guardian’s approval. When a woman marries, her husband becomes
her guardian (taking over from her father). If she is widowed, guardianship is
transferred to her son or back to her father or uncle (if her father is
Travel documents (such as a passport) can
only be obtained with the consent of the guardian. In a break from tradition,
Saudi women do not need such approval when applying for a driver’s license.
A woman is fortunate if she has a
co-operative guardian who will allow her to pursue her dreams. The reality,
however, is that many are at the mercy of an authority figure who is not so
Human Rights Watch provides a series of
vignettes that point to the absurdity and dangers of such a system. A young
woman is released from juvenile detention, only to be returned by her father,
who refuses to accept her for bringing shame to the family. Does it make sense
to require a male guardian’s permission to be released from jail? In another, a
woman escapes to a shelter with her infant, only to be released into the
custody of her male guardian – her abusive husband. In a third, a surgeon is
invited to a prestigious medical conference in London. She asks her teenage son
for permission to travel, only to be refused.
While the male guardianship system can only
be abolished from within, Muslims elsewhere must make their voices heard that
such an archaic, authoritarian system has no place in our faith.