The Challenges To Saudi Women’s Automony

The Challenges To Saudi Women’s Automony June 2, 2010

Last fall Nesrine Malik discussed the repressive guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia and challenged the thinking of a female Saudi journalist who thinks Sharia and Islam are the routes to women’s liberation:

When living in Saudi Arabia, every time I wanted to travel outside the kingdom I had to produce a piece of paper from my male guardian authorising my movements in order to be granted an exit visa. This process became more difficult when my father passed away, after which my sisters and I were left scrambling for the closest male relative to sanction our travel.

Several of my Saudi friends had to forgo completing their studies abroad when their families refused permission. The lucky few managed to get a younger brother to accompany them for the entire duration of their studies.

Recently, according to Sabria Jawhar in an article for the Huffington Post, “Pressure from outside Saudi Arabia has been building to abolish guardianship laws, and a number of women who fashion themselves as activists have led the charge.”

Jawhar is upset with a female Saudi activist named Wajeha al-Huwaider whom she accuses of “showboating” and “unseemly” behaviour. Huwaider’s “showboating” involved a public protest in which she was driven to the Saudi border with Bahrain and then got turned back due to her inability to produce her guardian’s written permission to travel.

How anyone putatively concerned with women’s rights could dare accuse a peacefully protesting female Saudi activist of “showboating” is beyond me.

Sabria Jawhar says, “Many families treat their wives, daughters and sisters with great respect and don’t follow their every move. Permission to travel or to conduct business abroad is often granted carte blanche with a signed piece of paper from a mahram. Many women travel freely with this document and consult little with the men in their families about their movements.”

But what this legal dimension does in other cases is ensure that despotic guardians have an iron grip, leaving little leeway for their women to flee, travel or challenge their guardianship.

And why do women tolerate this situation?

Even under subjugation, women have power, mostly over other women, and that power is drawn from their hard-earned position in the established hierarchy.

Those that have excelled at compliance have achieved some status and can then look down on the less honourable and rebellious. An assault on this system destroys an entire arsenal of survival skills and lifetime of work. Like the chronically redundant, they would have to retrain and re-enter the job market at junior level with all the other upstarts. In fact, by allying themselves to the male guardians, women are then delegated power that they can in turn wield themselves. They have a vested interest in the status quo and in maintaining their positions as the matrons of propriety.

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