Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tribal customs, not Islam, is responsible for male guardianship abuses

A battle is brewing among Saudi women over the touchy issue of male guardianship. 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.

Perhaps the most visible is Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi who does a little showboating by being driven in a taxi to the border checkpoint to enter Bahrain without permission from a male guardian. She's always turned away by Saudi authorities and told to go home. She is the darling of Western conservatives who think this public demonstration will further the cause of Saudi women.

It's silly. Public acts of defiance are unseemly in Saudi society and few women want to give up their dignity when letter-writing and petition campaigns are more effective.

Additionally, advocating to completely abolish guardianship rules is not a productive means to deal with abuses in the system. The problem with some Saudi activists is that they want to make wholesale changes that are contrary to Islam, which requires a mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don't join Al-Huwaider it's because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huwaider's all or nothing position undercuts her credibility.

Of course, there are a great many women who are abused and they are seeking to change the guardianship system. And these efforts have sparked a counter-campaign by women who want the system to remain the same.

Recently a campaign called "My Guardian Knows the Best for Me" was initiated in direct response to the anti-guardianship movement. I have mixed feelings about both movements, but I must say the guardianship supporters have me more worried.

The system currently in place is seriously flawed. Saudi authorities have abdicated their responsibility to see that laws are enforced in a fair and equitable manner. It has ceased being a religious issue and is more about patriarchal control.

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 since there are no codified laws, most Saudi women traveling alone don't know from one day to the next whether their documents will pass scrutiny at the airport. And for every family that follows guardianship rules, there is another family that wields the law like a club. It's not a system ripe for abuse. It's already a system abused with regularity.

Guardianship opponents are waging a losing battle if they believe that Saudi authorities will abolish the law. The reality is that there is little incentive for the government to consider anything but maintaining the status quo.

More worrisome is the women's pro-guardianship camp that is perfectly happy for men to control their lives. That's fine for them. They undoubtedly live in households of unquestioned male authority and are pleased with the arrangement. But what about the women abused by the guardian system?

It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family's tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women's shelter.

Here is a clear instance of the Saudi judicial system failing to protect the woman and tacitly endorsing abuse of the guardianship system.

If men follow the spirit of guardianship as outlined in the Qur'an and recognize at the same time there is no place for tribal customs within the system, then a happy medium can be found. But if the Saudi courts fail to implement checks and balances to punish guardianship abusers and to protect the victims, then the laws are pointless.

Tribal customs should not usurp Sharia. Yet, to listen to the pro-guardianship camp, Saudi customs and traditions should indeed be a central part of the system. In effect, they are placing customs and traditions above Islam.

By waging a campaign fully supporting existing guardianship rules dooms thousands of Saudi women to being housebound servants to male family members.

A campaign to encourage guardianship, but also to demand that codified laws protect the abused, makes more sense. Such a system respects an independent woman's right to move about, attend university and marry whomever she pleases. It allows the family to determine a comfort level, but also imposes consequences on guardians who manipulate the laws to their own advantage.

The argument that women are not competent to handle their own affairs is not valid and never has been. More Saudi women than men attend universities in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Most of the money held in banks belongs to women.

How guardianship laws are followed must be a joint decision involving the family. But Saudi judges also need to summon the courage to cast aside customs and traditions when faced with abuse cases and make the right call to protect victims.


Jerry said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. You make a good point about the need to reform the existing system.

One observation I would make is that the problems you point out show that Saudi Arabia needs to have clearly codified laws. I read too many blogs that talk about the lack of transparency in your country's legal system.

Umm Latifa said...

salam alaykum, v. interesting, good points. I would like to mention that there are Muslim scholars (also Saudi) who hold the position that women can travel without a mahram. There is an interesting article written by sheikh Sami al-Majid on islamtoday.
"Some scholars have said that if it is safe enough, she needs no one to accompany her. She can travel alone along with the caravans and be safe. This is indicated by the hadîth of `Adî that we mentioned earlier.
Permissibility is even more certain when a woman cannot find a mahram and her best interests are to be secured by her traveling. Permissibility is indisputable in cases where travel becomes a necessity for her, on account of the principle in Islamic Law that necessity makes unlawful things permissible. This is why the scholars have permitted a woman to travel unescorted to emigrate from a non-Muslim country to a Muslim one. In some situations, they even declare such a journey to be obligatory upon her."
you can read the whole article:

Hereunder also an interesting article
here we read among others:
"Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation put forward by UN member states in February to take steps to end the system of male guardianship over women, to give full legal identity to Saudi women, and prohibit gender discrimination. The government also clarified that the Shari'a concept of male guardianship over women is not a legal requirement, and that "Islam guarantees a woman's right to conduct her affairs and enjoy her legal capacity.""

Anonymous said...

Assalamu alaikum,

Thanks a lot for your great post.

Susie of Arabia said...

I too am totally worried about the pro-guardianship campaign. Women are perfectly capable of making their own decisions about their lives. Unlike you, I have to admire Al-Huwaider for her efforts to bring the plight of women's secondary status here into the spotlight. She is persistent and if any change is to come for women in this country, we need more women like her. Can you tell me specific cases where letter writing or petitions have effectively benefitted women here in KSA?

Jewels said...

The "degree of advantage" that men have over women is acknowledging a fact- it is not an endorsement. The guardian is supposed to be concerned with the women's rights not being impeded, not his rights over her.

His duty is to make sure she is educated to take care of her finances, that she knows how to drive, that no one is beating her and that no other man stops her from: driving, educating herself, managing her assets or deciding when she wants to go out.

It seems to me the religion of Arabia is not Islam but Patriarchy- since that is the way of life.