For decades, the United States has supported Saudi Arabia despite the latter country’s record of human rights abuses and working against American interests. What explains this alliance that has endured across multiple US presidential administrations? Fearless firebrand Medea Benjamin tackles this question in her new book Kingdom of the Unjust. Get it now by making a donation to Truthout!
The following are two excerpts from the chapter, “The Struggle of Saudi Women for Equal Rights,” in Kingdom of the Unjust.
What Is the Male Guardianship Policy?
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While there have been major gains for Saudi women in the past decades due to campaigns by women themselves and reforms implemented by the late King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia remains the most gender-segregated nation in the world. The discriminatory male guardianship system persists despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, a woman, no matter her age, is treated as a minor and must live under the supervision of a wali, or guardian. This is a legally recognized male — her father, husband, uncle, or some other male relative (even her son) — who must grant formal permission for most of the significant issues affecting her life. Some refer to this system as a form of gender apartheid.
Women are not allowed to marry, obtain a passport, or travel without the permission of their guardians. Enrollment in education requires a guardian’s approval, although some universities are no longer requiring this. Employers often require male guardians to approve the hiring of females.
In May 2016 a new reform touted in the international media made it compulsory that a married woman’s guardian give her a copy of her marriage certificate so she is aware of the conditions of the marriage. Previously, only men were allowed to have a copy of the certificate.
Unlike men, women do not have a unilateral right to divorce. A wife can obtain a divorce only if she pays back her dowry or can prove in court that her husband has harmed her; a man can divorce his wife unilaterally, without any legal justification.
Women also face discrimination when it comes to child custody. A Saudi woman may keep her children until they reach the age of seven for girls and nine for boys. Custody of children over these ages is generally awarded to the father. In rare cases where women are granted physical custody, fathers retain legal custody, meaning that most transactions on behalf of the children require the father’s consent. Foreign women married to Saudi nationals also suffer discrimination in custody and divorce matters.
Citizenship is transferred to children through their father, so a child born to an unwed mother is not legally affiliated with the father and is therefore “stateless.” Also, the government does not automatically grant Saudi citizenship to the children of Saudi women if their fathers are not Saudi. Sons can apply for citizenship but the decision is at the discretion of the Interior Minister. Daughters of Saudi mothers and non-Saudi fathers are not granted citizenship unless they marry a Saudi husband and give birth to a child. In September 2015, the Supreme Judicial Council granted women with custody of their children the right to handle all their affairs, but they still need permission from the children’s father to travel outside the country.
In certain types of cases in court, female testimony is worth half as much as male testimony. If a woman is in prison or in a rehabilitation center, she cannot be released to anyone but her guardian; if the guardian refuses to accept the woman, as often happens, she remains imprisoned.
Some hospitals require the male guardian’s approval for certain medical procedures. Women are not allowed to expose their body to a male healthcare worker unless it is a medical emergency. In 2015, a member of the Senior Council of Scholars, the highest state body for the interpretation of Islamic law, issued a fatwa stating that women are not allowed to visit a male doctor without their male guardians. But this is not the law and in practice, many women attend healthcare facilities without guardians.
Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan, complaining about the devastating effects of the male guardianship system, poses the dilemma of a friend being abused by her father. “If I report the situation to the police and they take it seriously enough to go to my friend’s house, her father—as her legal guardian—could simply dismiss them at the door. Even if my friend gathers the courage to go to the police station herself, she is more likely to be sent to prison than her father is. Her charge would be disobeying her father.”
The real problem, explained Saudi journalist Ebtihal Mubarak, is the tremendous authority this system gives to the male figure. “It’s not that Saudi men hate women, but having so much power can bring out the monster in men.”
“Some women are lucky and their guardians allow them the freedom to travel, to get an education, to work, or to marry the person they choose, but many Saudi women are not that lucky,” wrote blogger Suzie Khalil. “This guardianship system basically means that Saudi women are totally powerless over their own lives and destinies unless their male guardian allows them that power.”
Why Can’t Women Drive?
Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. There is no specific law prohibiting women from driving, but the Interior Ministry and the police enforce a ban. The only places where women can get away with driving are in rural areas, in gated communities, and inside the compounds of the oil company Aramco.
One reason used to justify the ban is personal safety, implying that women are safer with men behind the wheel. Others insist that the ban protects women from being attacked if they are out alone, and women do indeed worry that when they finally start driving, they might be attacked by fanatics who think women shouldn’t drive. A rather humorous excuse to keep women from driving came from a sheikh who issued a fatwa in 2013 saying that women can’t drive because driving would harm their ovaries and reproductive systems.
“I find these excuses insulting and condescending,” says Suzie Khalil, an American married to a Saudi. “Saudi Arabia ranks among the world’s worst countries for traffic fatalities. That’s what happens when only men are allowed to drive. Despite the fact that I have driven safely in the United States since I was fifteen (that’s almost forty years!), I am not allowed behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia simply because I don’t have a penis.”
The ban on driving, along with the general lack of reliable and safe public transportation, has a terrible impact on women who can’t afford their own drivers. The bustling cities, crowded with speeding cars and trucks, can be a hazard for women walking or trying to catch a taxi. For women who want to work or who must work to provide for their families, their immobility can make it impossible to hold down a job. Without a job, most women can’t afford to hire a personal driver. If a woman has a job, the bulk of her salary might go to paying her driver.
A Saudi woman from Jeddah explained how expensive it is for a family to hire a driver. Drivers are foreign men who usually live in the employer’s home. In addition to the salary, the employer has to pay fees for recruiting agencies, visas, airfare, medical check-ups, driver’s licenses, traffic tickets, extra living quarters, furniture, insurance, meals, medical bills, medicine, and extra use of water and electricity. “What a huge financial burden for a country with a shrinking middle class, and with minimum wages not much higher than that paid to a driver brought in from a developing country, many of whom have never driven a car before coming to work in Saudi Arabia,” she remarks.
She also questions the logic of a deeply conservative society where a foreign man — a stranger — is brought to live in a family’s home simply to drive the women.
For decades Saudi women have been calling for lifting the ban on driving. In 1990, a protest was organized by Aisha Almana. Almana is a Saudi woman who had studied in the United States where, she said, she recognized that she was “a human being equal to anyone else. I am a free soul, and I am my own driver.” Almana and forty-six other women piled into fourteen cars and drove around Riyadh in a convoy, snaking through the busiest part of the city. On their second lap, they were arrested and thrown in jail. Their passports were confiscated, those with government jobs were fired, and they were denounced in mosques across the country. Since they were from prestigious families, they were released, their jobs eventually reinstated, and their passports returned.
In 2007 women unsuccessfully petitioned King Abdullah for the right to drive, and a 2008 video of activist Wajeha al-Huwaider driving received international attention. In 2011, about seventy women openly challenged the law by driving and a similar protest was organized in 2013. Three days before the targeted date, the Interior Ministry warned that “women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators.” Despite the warning and the police roadblocks set up to catch women drivers, twelve brave women filmed themselves driving, then posted the videos online. Some of the women were imprisoned, fined, suspended from their jobs, banned from traveling, and even threatened with terrorism charges for public incitement.
Aziza al-Yousef, one of the organizers of a 2013 driving campaign, said defiantly, “We are sick and tired of waiting to be given our rights. It’s about time for us to take them.” She was arrested for driving and only released when her husband bailed her out and pledged that she would not drive again. Again in 2015, two women activists were arrested for driving.
A YouTube video by Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh satirizing the ban by rewording the Bob Marley song “No Woman No Cry” as “No Woman No Drive” was an instant hit, getting seven million views in one week.
Saudi women are still waiting, however, for the petition or protest or satire that will be the tipping point, forcing the government to finally grant them this most basic of rights.
Copyright (2016) by Medea Benjamin. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, OR Books.