August 1, 2017

Saudi Women Say They Won't Be Controlled by Men Much More



Women in Saudi Arabia are still controlled by men – but not for much longer.
From the moment a woman is born until the day that she dies, she is under the so-called ‘guardianship’ of a male relative. And that man – usually her father to start off with and then later, her husband – has the final say in some of the biggest decisions of her life. Her marriage, her work, her medical procedures – these all need to be signed off by her guardian.

A lot of women – and a lot of men – in the Kingdom aren’t happy about the state of affairs.
Sahar Nassif, a prominent women’s rights activist from Jeddah, told Metro.co.uk that her son is her guardian, and – being from an open-minded family – it’s treated as a formality.
But even then, she is one of the system’s most vocal opponents.

‘I come from an open-minded family, as do most of the people in Jeddah – so we don’t face any problems with our guardians,’ she said. ‘My son is my guardian, but on paper only. He has nothing to do with any of my decisions.

‘Yet, it’s humiliating to be 63 years old and have a guardian.’
Last September, tens of thousands of people signed a petition calling on King Salman to completely dismantle the country’s controversial guardianship system. The groundbreaking campaign was led by noted Saudi women’s rights activist Aziza Al-Youssef, and had an unprecedented level of support from women and men across the country. An artwork by Ms Saffaa, a well-known Saudi street artist now based in Sydney, went viral – and soon women around the world were sporting canvas bags and t-shirts emblazoned with ‘#IAMMYOWNGUARDIAN’. 

When we spoke, Al-Youssef was keen to stress that it wasn’t just women supporting the campaign.
‘A lot of people were supportive of the issues, it’s very rare to be against it,’ she said. ‘From the very rich to the very poor, even the ones who are in a high position in government – they are all touched by these laws.
‘It was not only women who signed the petition, it was women and men putting their name to petition and calling for the administration them to change the law.
‘This is because by fighting for our rights, we’re fighting for all human rights.’
When Al-Youssef and another prominent campaigner Eman Al-Nefjan went to the Royal Court to deliver the petition to officials in person, they were told – very nicely, apparently – to turn around, go home, and submit it in the post.
Which they did. And then they waited.


The badass women fighting for basic rights in Saudi Arabia
Aziza Al-Youssef led the anti-guardianship campaign last year, and tried to hand-deliver the petition to the Royal Court (Picture: Getty Images)


‘In three days we collected 17,000 signatures – then the site was blocked,’ Nassif, who was also directly involved with the anti-guardianship campaign, explained.
‘We had it reopened three more times, and it got blocked again. We sent telegrams to the King, and then printed out the petition and gave it to the Royal Court, but had no response whatsoever.’

But while the women were given the silent treatment by the King, they were heaped with praise from people all over the world. At the same time, Ms Saffaa’s illustrations were admired, shared and worn by women in the UK, the US, and beyond.
In the most recognisable of her drawings, a Saudi woman stares defiantly at the viewer, with the campaign’s slogan written underneath in both Arabic and English.
‘I Am My Own Guardian reflects on ideas of resistance,’ the 39-year-old artist wrote in an article for Muftah.

‘The resistance of Saudi women to patriarchy is often a silent one that goes undetected. This silent resistance helps Saudi women manoeuvre through socially complex structures that favour men over women.’


The badass women fighting for basic rights in Saudi Arabia
Ms Saffaa’s campaign artwork, emblazoned with ‘I AM MY OWN GUARDIAN’ in Arabic, came to represent the groundbreaking campaign (Picture: Ms Saffaa/Twitter/Metro.co.uk)

The recent uprising against guardianship has echoes of an earlier campaign by women in the Kingdom – the October 26th driving protest four years ago, which highlighted women’s inability to drive in the country as an example of their lack of freedom.

Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. They can legally – but not in reality.
What many don’t know is that women aren’t technically banned from driving in the KSA; so, technically, it’s legal. But women aren’t granted driving licences. And in Saudi, like most places, driving without a licence is illegal.
So on October 26th, 2013, dozens of women flouted the (technically unofficial) rule and went out in their cars.

Mostly they ran errands – they dropped the kids off at school, picked up the shopping, filled their cars up with petrol. Normal everyday stuff, except they were in direct contradiction of an archaic, misogynistic de-facto ban.
In one of the many videos posted to YouTube from that day, Sahar flashes a V-sign at the camera before taking her place in the driving seat.
She told me that most people were surprisingly happy to see them behind the wheel – with the exception of the police, of course.
‘Believe it or not, people were ever so nice and encouraging,’ she said. ‘Clapping, honking and giving me thumbs up!


 
‘That is, until a police car turned up and signalled at me to pull over to the side of the road. Then suddenly six more police cars came. I was made to feel like a drug dealer.’ 
Sahar was forced to sign an official document stating that she would never drive again, which then had to be co-signed by her guardian, her son.
But as soon as she got her car back a week later, she was driving again.
‘I drove four more times to the pharmacy and supermarket [a week after getting stopped by the police],’ she said. ‘It felt really accepted by all the people who saw me get in and out of my car.’

It is fortunate that Sahar wasn’t arrested, however, and she has a supportive family who treat the guardianship requirements as a formality.
Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specialises in Saudi Arabia, explained that many women aren’t so lucky.

Because female inmates are reliant on their male guardian to sign them out at the end of their sentence, they are at the complete mercy of their husband, father or son.
‘There are women languishing in prisons because their families refuse to come and get them,’ Rothna told me. ‘Women have been kept in prison for years, having served their time, who can’t get out because their families won’t collect them.’
This is a particularly big problem when their ‘guardian’ is the one who put them in prison in the first place.

Many other women have been arrested and detained for ‘driving while female’, as one activist’s charge sheet called it.
Loujain Al-Hathloul, a 27-year-old activist, was arrested on June 4 this year – for the second time.
Loujain Alhathloul attempts to cross Saudi borders


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She was picked up by police at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam on June 4, according to Amnesty International, and was denied access to her family and lawyers.
Three years had passed since her first arrest, in 2014, when she tried to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates in protest against the ban.
Samah Hadid from Amnesty described the ‘continued harassment’ of Hathloul as ‘absurd and unjustifiable’. ‘It appears she is being targeted once again because of her peaceful work as a human rights defender speaking out for women’s rights, which are consistently trammeled in the Kingdom,’ Hadid said.

An Amnesty spokesperson told Metro.co.uk that Hathloul was, fortunately, released just a few days later on June 7.
Another activist Manal Al-Sharif, who was arrested for first flouting the driving ban back in 2011, has just released a new book about her experiences called Daring to Drive. She has also attracted the police’s attention for being against the veil.
‘I’m proud of my face,’ she writes in the book. ‘I will not cover it. If it bothers you, don’t look. If you are seduced by merely looking at it, that is your problem. You cannot punish me because you cannot control yourself.’

A photo of Manal, now 38, giving the V sign to the camera as she sits behind the wheel has since become an iconic symbol of women’s fight for basic freedoms in the Kingdom.
After that she lost her job, her home, and even custody of her son – whom she is now only able to see once or twice a year.


The badass women fighting for basic rights in Saudi Arabia
Manal al-Sharif was arrested for driving in 2011 – and has since lost her home, her job, and custody of her child (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

Manal’s case seems severe, but activists in Saudi are often relentlessly targeted by the authorities. Many have chosen to leave the country because of it, while others face government-imposed travel bans.

‘The risks to activists really vary,’ Rothna explained. ‘Initially in the 1990s, when women first started driving as a protest against the ban, they were arrested and then suspended or even fired from their jobs.
‘More recently, activists face a range of things, like being arrested on trumped-up charges. They will then only be released when a male guardian comes to sign for them, which itself is a form of humiliation for them. ‘Otherwise, others can face being formally charged, and even jailed.’

These campaigns, built on the basic human need for freedom, sent shockwaves around the world – and the tremors were too big to simply be ignored by the King.

In April this year, King Salman announced that women would no longer need a male guardian’s signature to access new government services, and asked the Shura (advisory council) to provide a full list of all of the functions that still require a guardian’s approval.
Guardianship is complex. While there are few things that actually require a guardian’s signature by law, many providers of services will enforce unofficial guardianship requirements anyway. What King Salman’s decree does is, essentially, clamp down on these unofficial guardianship rules.

It has been hailed as a major breakthrough for women’s rights in the country – although there are some setbacks.


The badass women fighting for basic rights in Saudi Arabia
Women in the Kingdom hope that the royal decree, announced in April, signals the beginning of the end of guardianship in Saudi (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

Although women won’t need a guardian’s approval for some government services, they may still be required to provide one when dealing with the private sector. For example, if a woman needs to get a medical procedure in the country, or if she’s applying for a job, she will still need to provide a male guardian’s signature. Women will also still be forbidden from travelling abroad or applying for passports without male approval.

Hala Al-Dosari is one of the activists who wrote the anti-guardianship petition last year, and a scholar who specialises in women’s rights and domestic abuse. After winning awards for her work, including the 2016 Freedom Award from international advocacy group Freedom House, she now uses her position on the world stage to speak out on behalf of the Kingdom’s women. 

She told me that the decree didn’t go far enough in protecting women from the violence they face from their own families.
‘Women are forced to try and leave their homes because they’re stuck in violent situations, because their families are violent,’ she said. ‘But their families can then report them to the authorities as a runaway. She can then be tracked down and arrested. But there’s no mention of this in the decree.’

Many activists, however, are optimistic that guardianship will soon crumble to dust.
‘It’s a great sign,’ Sahar enthused. ‘At last he [King Salman] addressed our issues and mentioned women’s rights several times. Now we’re just waiting for the annulment of this act, and women will be free human beings at the age of 18.
‘The campaign is going to keep going on until we’re emancipated. But things are changing a lot – we’re getting there.’
Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia


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When I asked Al-Youssef if she also thought this was the beginning of the end for the oppressive system, she replied: ‘We hope. We’re hoping it will happen. Things have to change, because we can’t have this in 2017.’
Al-Dosari agreed, adding that while she acknowledges she has lived a ‘privileged’ life with a family who are supportive, many others aren’t so lucky.
‘Most activist women are from very supportive families, because you simply cannot go out there in public and say these things, and speak out against the government in this way, if you don’t have support. It’s just impossible,’ she said.

‘People sometimes try to silence me by saying “oh, well, you’re from a privileged background”. But I will not be silent. We have to speak out for those women who can’t.
‘It’s not about individual men or the few women who can work and travel because they have supportive “guardians”. It’s about the state, and the state’s responsibility towards its women citizens.
‘So I will not stop my fight against guardianship.’


METRO







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