Saturday, September 5, 2009

Saudi women fight for autonomy

In Saudi Arabia, women aren't allowed to travel without the say-so of a male relative. Will they put up with it for much longer?

Nesrine Malik, Saturday 5 September 2009

COMMENT: This is becoming increasingly the case in Gaza under Hamas.

"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......

The wali, or guardian, is the practical underwriter of a woman's existence in Saudi Arabia. These mahrams (male relatives whom it is haram – forbidden – to wed) sit in a pyramid of patronage with the father and husband at the pinnacle, descending through uncles (paternal uncles higher up the scale, naturally) and bottoming out with brothers......

To counter this liberal activism, a conservative campaign – under the slogan "My Guardian Knows the Best for Me" – was recently launched to oppose dismantling of the guardianship system. The movement, launched by Rawdah el-Yousif (although ironically, she is in dispute with a man over who can claim the credit for the campaign) is a vehicle for, in Rawdah's words, expressing "dismay at the efforts of some who have liberal demands that do not comply with Islamic law or with the kingdom's traditions and customs".

In an overwhelmingly patriarchal and segregated society, where there is little accommodation of women in official circles, it is not surprising that men should be able to conduct affairs on behalf of their female relatives. For a female without a mahram, carrying out even the most basic transactions in places staffed entirely by ogling, dismissive, men is excruciating. But to legally hand the reins entirely to men signs over the fate of half the population to those who are potentially capricious, overbearing and misogynistic in a deeply traditional society.......

Nobody is stopping women from deferring to their guardians' authority in their private lives, but insisting that this authority applies across the board shows a shocking disregard for other women not privileged enough to have guardians who "know what's best for them"."

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