Someone to Watch Over Me: On the Saudi Guardianship Campaign

When a woman says, “My guardian knows what’s best for me,” what should we do?

Earlier this month, blogger Eman Al Nafjan posted her feelings about a new campaign in Saudi Arabia. The campaign, which began last month, is called “My guardian knows what’s best for me” and aims to gather one million signatures in support of the kingdom’s status quo in regard to women’s guardianship laws. According to Al Nafjan, two Saudi princesses who support this campaign have started their own websites devoted to the issue.You can find both websites here and here (both are in Arabic).

A quick look to both sites shows that they are similar to each other. For example, in one of the sites, a link called “Our Strategic Goal” reveals that the campaign’s aim is “To promote for the culture of stewardship from an Islamic perspective.” The aim mentioned on the other site is to “Clarify the concept of the legitimate right of the mandate ‘of public and private’ to all members of society ‘men and women.’” [sic]

Al Nafjan quoted and translated from Dr. Elham Manea’s piece that replied to such act:

Some Saudi women have decided to express themselves.

They wanted to take a stand against human rights activists calling for Saudi Arabia to give women some (not all) of the rights that are enjoyed by their Arab counterparts in neighboring countries. So they came out with a new campaign titled “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me”.

Do we blame them? All they wanted was to fix a problem they know nothing of, and thus made it worse.  It would be strange to expect anything else from them. You cannot miss what you’ve never had.

Most of them belong to the Saudi aristocrats. Their leader is a princess. Their hands are velvet. They live in palaces and villas. How could we blame them for not knowing the reality of average Saudi women?

While Dr. Manea explained that a princess’ life (on which she based this whole campaign) is different from a normal Saudi woman’s life, I don’t see someone’s life as a reason, explanation, or even an excuse for her to judge or decide how other people should live.

If a woman wants someone to be her guardian and wants him to take care of her, her life and her choices, that’s fine by me, as long it’s her own choice and as long as she’s not asking me or any other woman to do the same!

They believe in something and they are expressing it. Believing in freedom of opinion, I wouldn’t have had reservations against the campaign if it weren’t for how they refused and rejected those who disagree with them.

On the first site, under the title goal, you can read:

“We reject all the cultural patterns which are inconsistent with our own culture.” [sic]

And on the other site:

“We reject all the ignorant or malicious demands, launched by the advocates of liberation and the westernization of the tenets of Islam and Arab identity, such as calling for the abolition of the role of guardians and patrons from our lives as Muslims, fueling feelings of getting out on religion and community values, sometimes in the pretext of doctrinal innovation, and for social and economic development at other times, while trying to instill unacceptable and flawed misconceptions and calling it anti-discrimination against women, such as: mixing, adornments, absolute equality, and many other demands that cannot be accepted by the mind of any Muslim prudent to this religion and those who follow it.” [sic]

She even goes as far as demanding punishment for those who think differently:

“We hope that the punishment of all who dare to provoke discord between the people, or promoting the quality of ignorance and corruption: “procedural or intellectual.” [sic]

Why do we only perceive our life style as the only right way of living? Who on this earth has the right to force his way, his choices and his morals on other people as rules?

Women empowerment will not be achieved neither by Saudi princesses quoting some verses from Qur’an on their online campaigns, nor by human rights activists who sometimes also slip into the same mistake of prejudice when they meet any woman whose life style is different from theirs.

Empowerment is the freedom to choose. Bring up your daughter to believe in herself and her potentials, educate her, and then let her lead her own life and make her own choices. If you bring up your daughter as a fragile creature that’s liable to fracture and who is unable to protect herself, she’ll grow up into a woman who’s just that: a fragile creature unable to protect herself.

Give her the liberty to choose her life, and stop judging her if that choice doesn’t resemble yours.

For other viewpoints on the guardianship campaign, read the opinions of Sabria Jawhar and Nesrine Malik.

  • http://mummyjaan.wordpress.com mummyjaan

    It’s way too sad.

    I realize the role of guardians in Islam, but I think Saudi laws take it too far. To have to have a letter of permission from your guardian before you travel anywhere within the kingdom, for example, is too much.

  • stumblingmystic

    Why do you guys bother calling yourselves feminist at all? (I’m assuming this is an Islamic feminist blog.) Apparently *anything* a woman “freely” chooses is A-OK, so it must be okay for a woman to remain emotionally infantile, to be a trophy wife, to prostitute herself, to want her husband to beat her, or whatever. You should just invent a new label for this “anything goes” ideology.

    Sorry for the harsh remark, but this post fails to recognize that this kind of stupidity *affects* the lives of other women too. While on an individual level, I could not care less if a woman wants to be taken care of by her guardian or not, but when these attitudes have such strength at a societal level, they affect the lives of *other women* who do *not* want to subject themselves to the tyranny of external authority. (I’m a Pakistani, so I know firsthand what this is like.) If it was just a few eccentric women who wanted to subject themselves to this male control, I wouldn’t care, but in the case of most Muslim countries, it is the *majority*. Benevolent patriarchy is one of the most insidious forms of male dominance.

    Nobody exists in a vacuum. I’m well-prepared to defend my feminism, and don’t feel even slightly victimized or judged when someone criticizes me for it. Maybe the anti-feminists who want to retain male control over women’s lives might want to learn how to defend their ideas too. I don’t feel even an iota of pity for them.

  • Kalimaat

    “If a woman wants someone to be her guardian and wants him to take care of her, her life and her choices, that’s fine by me, as long it’s her own choice and as long as she’s not asking me or any other woman to do the same!”

    It is not matter of choice or one female’s positive or negative story of guardianship. It is about a law in the country that applies to every Saudi woman, decisions about access to health care, education, employment, travel, marriage are placed in the hands of the guardian. Imagine if the Saudi authorities extended this law to black people or minority Shias. Would choice form part of the debate? There is not room for “choice” in discrimination and gender apartheid.

    The fact that the support of the status quo is coming from princesses says it all really and i see nothing wrong with criticisng their lifestyle since the restrictions do not apply to them.

  • Zahra

    I don’t understand the point of this piece. From it I learned about the Saudi guardianship campaign, which I hadn’t heard of before. And I understand that other people are reacting to that campaign on both sides.

    But I don’t understand who all the players are here–there’s a blogger named Al Nafjan, and then there’s someone named Dr. Elham Manea. Her words get a lot of attention, but I have no idea who she is, whether she’s Saudi, etc. And then there are princesses. And presumably some other Saudi women who have joined the pro-guardianship campaign, although it seems like some of those words might actually be by the men who are leading the campaign.

    I don’t understand who of them is being critiqued where, and on what grounds. The writer seems upset that Dr. Manea criticized the princesses for their class privilege or (more likely) for using their class privilege to speak for all Saudi women. Well, OK, I think I can understand that–I would disagree, but I understand the point enough to dispute it.

    But then there also seems to be criticism of the people involved in the pro-guardianship campaign, and I really don’t understand what the grounds are. Which is a shame, because it seems important. And then the solution is…being a good mother? Huh?

    I’m still trying to figure out what the author meant, but this seems patronizing to the women on all sides of this debate. These women aren’t just expressing opinions; they are taking part in the political process, debating a law which affects all women in their country. From what I understand, Saudi women have limited opportunities to do so, and these actions might rate up with running for office in Qatar or Pakistan or the US.

    To say that all of them are wrong and the solution lies in raising their daughters to be more independent seems to ignore the fact that all of these women are talking about the laws of the nation they live in. It seems…well, if anyone told me that I should criticize the horribly unjust rape laws in my country but should just raise my daughter so she wouldn’t be raped, I would be livid.

    I’m left with a confused impression that women shouldn’t speak in the political arena, or shouldn’t disagree (?) or criticize each other, or really should just concentrate on their mothering duties instead of bothering to voice their opinion on a legal matter that affects their lives. I’m not sure if that’s what the writer intended, exactly, but I’m having enormous trouble following her train of thought.

    Which surprises me enormously on this site, which usually 1) is in favor of women speaking up and deciding their own fates and 2) offers clear commentary–I might disagree but I usually have no trouble telling where the contributors stand.

  • Rochelle

    Sorry i just couldn’t let this one slip by:

    “women’s empowerment means the ability to choose.”

    gaurdianship is the RELINQUISHMENT of the ability to choose.

    Can you voluntarily inslave yourself? No. This is not choice. Getting the advice of your husband on personal matters is one thing. Giving up all autonomy to him is another.

    Are you at all aware of what meaningful choice means? How can muslimahmediawatch supprt this kind of systematic infantilization of muslim women?

  • Eman

    Hello everyone,

    Correct me of I am wrong, but I have got the impression that what is being criticized here is what is perceived as contradiction between believing women are free to chose their lives, and the fact that the article didn’t state what’s clearly against the campaign.

    I would be doing the same mistake if I took someone’s choice away just because I personally don’t like it.

    And it’s interfering by the law in people’s lives is what this article is all about. Weather it’s for guardianship or not, a life style and the relation between people can’t be forced onto people’s life by law.

    Can you voluntarily enslave yourself? No. This is not choice.
    But can I force her into not doing that? Do I have the right to judge her because she believes so? I don’t think so.
    May be if I’m given the opportunity, and she welcomes, I can enlighten her with what I think she needs.

    It’s all about “There’s no such a thing that is the ultimate only true right thing to do”

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    Is anyone else smirking at the irony that women are using their agency and involving themselves in the political process for the cause of… eliminating their agency and removing themselves from the political process?

    How can we tell this is their agency and “real choice” anyway? Supposedly these are women whose political and personal actions are controlled by their husbands and fathers. How much influence are the actual ‘guardians’ having in these pro-guardian campaigns?

    Their self contradictions are just too obvious for me to take any of this seriously and to be honest, this entire thing makes me sick.

    nd I hope everyone here realizes that the “one million signatures campaign” concept is stolen DIRECTLY from the Moroccan, Tunisian, and iranian women’s rights initiatives of the same name who fight FOR their equality and not the status quo system of domination. What a f-cking insult.

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  • Sobia

    I agree with Rochelle on this one. The irony is blatant and the whole things just stinks.

  • SakuraPassion

    Eman:

    I respectfully disagree. I mean, yes I believe women should be free to make choices about their lives. But isn’t there a point at which we must stop and question some of the choices that some women make? Especially when it seems they’re giving up what agnecy they may have?

    Rochelle:

    I agree with you. It is ironic.

  • Eman

    Hello again ladies,

    OK! Let me put it this way?
    Who decides where the limit is? On what basis can we – and by that I mean people who have written here – decide what a wrong choice is?

    This parent-ship in the relation between people reminds me when a parent stands his child’s decision because he thinks it’s a wrong one.

    And women all over the world are not my or your children. Even if it’s a wrong choice from where you stand, she still has the right to take that wrong choice and its consequences. What gives me the right to take that from her?

    Another question.
    It’s OK if you reject her for her choice, but it’s bad when a man does the same for the women who asks for their right to vote, drive and travel freely?

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  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    Eman, I think you’re missing our point. You’re making a valid argument, but unfortunately it does not pertain to this case.

    Choices are great. Agreed. the ability to choose is fundamental even if we don’t agree with one’s choice. No argument there.

    BUT that’s not whats going on here. The guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia are the ELIMINATION of choice. Its giving husbands power over their wives equivalent to the power parents have over their children. It is a paradox, and thus impossible, to freely choose to give up your ability to choose. Thus these women are not simply ‘making a choice we disagree with’, they are enslaving themselves. They are infantilizing themselves. Its impossible to choose something like this.

    You can certainly submit yourself to the will of your husband or father or sister or cat or whoeever on a case to case basis. But not indefinitely. This is not a choice — its slavery.

    Where do we decide the limit? Well, as a matter of fact, I have the perfect line drawn right here: (Well, I borrowed it from classical western AND non-western political texts:)

    Everyone over an agreed upon age of maturity (in this case, 18 is the universal standard), is autonomous, and thus free to make their own choices regarding their personal, professional, spiritual, and cultural lives. This is regardless of sex, race, or socioeconomic status, and as long as they do not harm others or alienate themselves from their fundamental human rights of freedom from torture, slavery, and death.

    There you go.

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