March 8, 2019 Special Dispatch No. 7933

British-Palestinian Human Rights Activist Ahlam Akram: The Affair Of The Fugitive Saudi Teen Girl Is An Opportunity To Abolish Guardianship And All Discrimination Against Women In Arab World

March 8, 2019
Special Dispatch No. 7933

Responding to the affair of Rahaf Al-Qanun, the young Saudi woman who fled her homeland alleging abuse by her family,[1] British-Palestinian human rights activist Ahlam Akram devoted two of her columns in the liberal Saudi daily Elaph to the affair and to the status of women in the Arab world. [2] In the first column, published on January 18, she came out against the Saudi institution of guardianship for women[3] and against the violence and discrimination encountered by women in Arab countries. She stated that Rahaf's case, and the solidarity it has aroused across the globe, provide an opportunity for human rights and women's rights organizations in the Arab countries to promote the full and immediate abolishment of the guardianship laws and other laws that oppress women and discriminate against them. She added that abiding by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a necessary condition for overcoming the crisis that afflicts most of the Arab world.

In the second column, from January 25, she addressed the reservations that Arab countries made to CEDAW when they ratified this convention. She stated that these reservations, which limit the applicability of CEDAW in Arab countries, are a conspiracy between the governments and the religious establishment to deny women equality on the pretext of preserving religious and cultural values. The only way to overcome the social barriers, she said, is to pass laws ensuring the rights of women, so as to minimize their oppression and degradation. 

Ahlam Akram (image:

The following are excerpts from the two articles:

The Rahaf Affair – An Opportunity to Abolish Guardianship, Enslavement Of Women In Arab World

In her January 16 column, Ahlam Akram wrote: "The case of 18-year-old Rahaf, who said she was fleeing her abusive family despite her young age, is no different from the case of many young girls who flee [from their homeland] or else choose to stay in Western countries after finishing their university studies [there]. Despite the difficulty of living in a foreign land, and despite the high cost of living and the difficulty of finding a job, they choose to [accept] any refugee status that [allows them] to stay, rather than return to their homeland. This is because, in their homeland, they are regarded as deficient in intellect and faith[4] and as incompetent beings whose testimony is worth half of that of a man and who are not permitted to breathe without the approval of their guardian. And the worst thing of all is that the governments [of their countries] are negligent in protecting their physical and moral wellbeing.

"What I say here refers not only to Rahaf but to all women in the Arab world who must submit to the patronage of a guardian even if he hurts them, beats them to educate them... and abuses them emotionally. They are expected to remain silent and hide [the abuse], lest the family reputation be harmed. This is exactly what happened to another young Saudi woman, who fled to the home of a friend and contacted the authorities to demand their protection from the ongoing verbal and physical abuse of her father. Eventually he [even] threatened to burn her, [and] it was this threat that [finally] drove her to flee. She said that she had previously filed a complaint with the police, which settled for promising her that her father would not hurt her and sending her, humiliated, back home.[5]

"I heard similar stories, about the same [kind of] violence, from several battered women during my latest visit to a shelter for battered wives in Palestine. Are not all women in the Arab world exposed to this kind of violence, in all its forms? Is it not the case that inequality and discrimination – anchored in personal status laws that clerics insist must not be changed – are the norm throughout the Arab world? Is it not the case that inequality between a sister and brother in inheriting their parents – a fact that women bitterly and silently accept even after their brothers cheat them – is [also] the usual case throughout the Arab world? This inequality in inheritance, doesn’t it affect even the grandchildren's [generation]? Some Arab countries have amended the inheritance laws so that grandchildren can inherit their grandfather when their father dies, but the same privilege is denied to the orphaned children of [the grandfather's] daughter, if she dies. Is not all this included in the guardianship laws, which give the man complete control over the woman?

"Many think that Rahaf is too young to rebel this way, but Rahaf and other women know for certain what kind of violence awaits them and will be their lot throughout their lives – and that is what drove [Rahaf] to flee.

"I am surprised that Arab feminist organizations remain silent and avoid supporting the Saudi male and female activists who have managed to place the issue of guardianship... on the international [agenda]. Now is the time to leverage the world's solidarity, for the suffering [of women] is the same, even if the need to flee to freedom changes [from place to place]. This is an opportunity for all civil society organizations in the Arab world to support a single goal: ending the enslavement [of women] and abolishing the guardianship laws without hesitation. [They can now] mobilize the civil women's [rights] organization across the world [and elicit their support] for this demand, in accordance with international law, the conventions on women's rights, and agreements that most Arab states have signed.

"No Arab country can afford to wait any longer... [just] in order to avoid a [furious] response from the conservative sectors in society and from the clerics who distort the intention of religion and the intention of Allah the Almighty regarding justice, equality, mercy and freedom. The only way out of the crisis that is afflicting most Arab countries is to respect the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), without reservations and without excuses...[6] which impede the social development that benefits individuals and society. [For] what unites us is that we are all human beings created by a single God..." [7]

Legislation Empowering Women Is Crucial To Ending The Backwardness Of Arab Countries

In her January 25 column, Ahlam Akram wrote: "Arab countries justify the reservations they attached to several of the clauses of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by claiming religious and cultural uniqueness. The claim that [their] laws are drawn from the divine Shari'a, which may not be altered and deals justly with women. They assert this, while all these laws [actually] contradict the divine attributes and divine justice, and serve to sedate the individual and collective conscience. [They also] contradict what the Prophet's said [in a hadith]: 'You understand better than anyone about your religion,' for change and development are part of the reality of life and everyone bears the responsibility to change [religious practices] that are incompatible with our reality.

"The question is why Arab countries take exception to the second clause of the convention, which demands 'to repeal all national penal provisions which constitute discrimination against women'? This appears to be a conspiracy among the Arab countries to entrench the discrimination in the penal law. For example, a man who murders his wife on the grounds that she betrayed him – which is perceived as mitigating circumstances – is freed. Conversely, a woman is punished in a similar case, [even if she kills her husband] after catching him having sex with another women in their marital bed. The rationale is that the [other] woman could be an additional wife of his, since the law permits him multiple wives...

"[Why do they take exception to] clause 15 [of CEDAW], which calls on the signatories to accord men and women the same rights relating to [freedom of] movement and the freedom to choose their residence? This goes to the heart of the problem of domination, oppression, violence in all its forms and the familiar male arrogance – legal and societal – in the name of 'legal guardianship,' which authorizes the man to prevent the woman from studying, to marry her off at any age, and to beat her in order to correct her ways. Yes, I am aware that fathers love their daughters have a fierce desire to protect them, but often this desire is excessive, based on the interpretations of the hadith that says that 'a father should not be killed for his son,' which, [according to some interpretations,] permits a parent to even kill his son or his daughter. Similarly, based on the ruling of the Four Imams[8] with respect to the right to protect one's honor, the legal guardian can kill [his charge] on the grounds of an offense to his honor or based on the principle of concealment [which permits him to kill a woman under his protection if she did not properly conceal her body by adhering to the Islamic dress code] – yet [Arab] society remains silent. This right, which guardians abuse, is the worst kind of violence against women. Most Arab countries drag their feet, wavering between abolishing the clause [in the penal code?] that allows the criminal to evade punishment and viewing this as a crime, and preserving this clause, citing shari'a law on the preservation of honor. This is tantamount to protecting men's arrogance and their rights as guardians...

"I repeat, for the thousandth time, that the conspiracy of the Arab governments and the clerics [against granting equal rights to women], with the pretext of [preserving] cultural and religious uniqueness and avoiding emulation of the West, for fear of straying from the straight and narrow, has contributed to the backwardness of the Arab societies, to strengthening the patriarchal bias, and to the denial of women's rights, while entrenching this by means of false historical [claims]. This has led to the growth of a barren and arbitrary culture [based on] a tight fusion of religion, established custom and traditions, which include murder... How can a society thrive and develop when half its members [i.e., women] are unemployed and actively denied justice?

"The inaction of the Arab countries when it comes to the physical and moral protection of women cements the principle of [gender] discrimination and the violence in culture and behavior. Their inaction with respect to changing the personal status laws which anchor all the violations against women in legislation, are only intended to ensure their own survival and rule and to strengthen the control of the clerics and their grip on society.

"The Arab governments are legally obligated to act towards establishing a social and humane discourse which strengthens the values of democracy and prepares the way for them – [a discourse] based on a humane and cultural principle of equality between men and women in human rights which are not open to interpretation – and thus to erase the social distortion to which they contributed to over the years. Further, they must... clarify, by means of an intensive publicity campaign, that this is a change for the benefit of all and specifically for the benefit of society, which does not contradict the religious values of justice and equality...

"The only way to be rid of the social obstacles and to shorten the distance and the time [until they are eliminated] is via laws that clarify the rights of women in the world, so as to diminish the tyranny and the contempt for the [Arab] woman and the inferiority of her [status]. The foundations [of this attitude] were laid by the clerics based on controversial hadiths that were written about 250 years after the death of the Prophet, who said: 'Do not learn anything from me... for I am but a man like you.'"[9]


[4] This is a reference to a hadith according to which the Prophet described women as "deficient in intellect and faith."

[5] The reference is to Nojoud al-Mandeel, who also ran away from home alleging abuse by her father and appealed to the Saudi authorities for help. 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 16, 2019.

[6] Saudi Arabia joined CEDAW in 2002, but with reservations, including the sweeping caveat that "in case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the [Saudi] Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention" ( This effectively renders its ratification of CEDAW meaningless by potentially exempting any discrimination that is presented as mandated by Islam.  

[7], January 18, 2019.

[8] The reference is to founders of the four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali).

[9], January 25, 2019.


Share this Report: