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June 2, 2017 No.
1316

The Saudi Royal Decree Easing Guardianship Requirements For Women, And Responses To It In Saudi Arabia

By: B. Shanee*

Introduction

On May 4, 2017, Saudi King Salman bin Abd Al-'Aziz issued a royal decree easing guardianship (wilaya) requirements for women in the country. The decree instructs all government institutions in the kingdom to provide services to women without requiring the consent of their male guardians, unless such a requirement is stipulated by state law based on the Islamic shari'a.[1]

The decree, signed by King Salman in his capacity as Saudi prime minister, is historic in that it alters the fabric of Saudi society and lifts many of the restrictions that the guardianship (wilaya) system imposed on Saudi women. Saudi state law explicitly requires a woman to receive the consent of her guardian (mahram) – husband, father, grandfather, brother or son – in a restricted number of cases, which include obtaining a passport, leaving the country and contracting marriage. However, in practice, women often require the guardian's consent in writing for almost every interaction in the public sphere, such as seeking employment, opening a bank account, receiving medical treatment, filing a lawsuit (including in matters of domestic violence), enrolling in higher education, and traveling within the country.[2]

During the nine months prior to the issuance of the decree, Saudi activists, both men and women, waged an intensive Twitter campaign protesting against the guardian system and its impact on women's lives, and demanding its abolition. The decree was enthusiastically welcomed by many Saudi women on Twitter, and received much attention in reports and articles in the Saudi press. The press responses ranged from joy at the decree and hope for its implementation to criticism that it is insufficient in scope and does not ensure full equality between men and women.

This report reviews the royal decree itself, the extensive Twitter campaign that preceded it, and responses in the kingdom to it.

The Royal Decree And The Twitter Campaign That Preceded It

As stated, the royal decree of May 4, 2017 instructs all government institutions in Saudi Arabia to grant services to women without requiring their guardians' consent, unless this requirement is stipulated in Saudi state law based on the directives of the Islamic shari'a. The decree gives the relevant authorities in government institutions three months to reexamine their regulations on providing services to women. It also requires the institutions to provide their female employees, who are banned by law from driving, with suitable means of transportation wherever possible.[3] Furthermore, the decree charged the Saudi Human Rights Commission with drafting, in coordination with the government institutions, a program for promoting awareness of the women's rights treaties to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, to be implemented by means of the media and education facilities.[4]

The spokesman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission clarified that women still require their guardian's permission for obtaining a passport, leaving the country, or studying abroad, since this requirement is stipulated in Saudi law. The spokesman clarified further that the issue of women driving "is still controversial and requires a decision by society," meaning that the decree does not affect the ban on women driving. He added that the decree was an expression of Saudi Arabia's socio-economic reform plan, Vision 2030, which calls for the active participation of Saudi women in shaping the country's economic and social future.[5]

It should be mentioned that rumors about the upcoming royal decree began circulating in late April 2017. The daily 'Okaz reported that senior officials had instructed government bodies to stop requesting proof of the guardian's consent before granting services to women unless the law specifically demanded this,[6] and a photo of an unsigned draft of the decree was circulated on Twitter.[7]


Unsigned draft of the decree circulated on Twitter in late April

As noted, the decree was preceded by a nine-month Twitter campaign for the abolition of the guardianship system, which included the launching of many hashtags such as "Abolition of the Guardianship" and "We Are Saudi Women Demanding to Abolish the Guardianship." As part of this campaign, activists of both sexes criticized the guardianship system and stated that it does not derive from the Islamic shari'a but only from customs and traditions. They noted that it grants men complete control over women's lives and the right to be violent towards them under the protection of the law, and that it allows women to be treated like animals.


Tweet: "Guardianship is the slavery of the 21st century." Source: Twitter.com/nbaa2t, August 4, 2016.

The hashtag ""We Are Saudi Women Demanding to Abolish Guardianship" was widely circulated and included tweets from various campaigns for promoting women's rights in the kingdom and for supporting women activists persecuted by the authorities.[8]

The campaign also sparked much opposition in Saudi society, including from women who praised the guardianship system and rejected the calls to abolish it, and even launched the hashtag "I Am a Saudi Woman and I Refuse to Abolish Guardianship."[9] 

Saudi Reactions To The Decree – From Joy To Statements That It Is Insufficient

As noted, the royal decree prompted a wave of joy and excitement from Saudi women on Twitter, who launched a hashtag "Let Women Be Without a Guardian." For example, Twitter user Rahal from Riyadh reposted a 2013 cartoon showing a female victim of domestic violence asking for help from a policeman who tells her that she needs her guardian's consent to file a complaint. Rahal wrote, in English: "Those days are gone forever."


Rahal's tweet. Source: Twitter.com/Justletitgo1986, May 4, 2017; an7a.com/90224, January 23, 2013.

Another tweet, posted on the Saudi Feminists account, included a do it." The tweet thanked the women who had worked against the oppressive laws in Saudi Arabia, and promised that the royal decree would be only the beginning of the path.


Saudi Feminists tweet. Source: Twitter.com/feministsinksa, May 4, 2017

Saudi women's rights activists Hamsa Al-Sanosi tweeted: "An historic decision, on the 303rd day [of the hashtag].' Women must be allowed to have no guardian – because a guardian for a woman is bid'a [an innovation forbidden in Islam] that has no explicit basis [in Islamic law]."[10]

Saudi Shura Council Member Latifa Al-Sha'lan tweeted: "Everything that has been going on for decades – the hijacking of society by a single [religious] stream that took over it, interference in freedom of choice, the exclusion of women and the banning of the arts – is now collapsing and vanishing. I feel sorry for those who are furious [over this] and refuse to acknowledge it."  


Latifa Al-Sha'lan's tweet. Source: twitter.com/LatifahAshaalan, May 4, 2017

Excitement over the decree was also apparent in the Saudi press, with numerous reports and articles discussing it and its implications for the lives of women in Saudi Arabia. Many op-eds published following its release openly welcomed it, describing it as a significant and historic change in Saudi Arabia and urging to transition period allotted for this purpose.  Some of the articles also called for further sweeping reforms in all aspects of life where Saudi women experience inequality and discrimination. Conversely, other articles urged to make do with the change represented by the royal decree and to avoid contentiousness and seditious rhetoric  on social media.

Saudi Shura Council member Dr. Thuraya Al-Arrayed, who also writes a column for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, joyfully welcomed the royal decree, and explained that because it stated that women  are no longer dependent entities, it was a response to the circles that were forcing a misinterpretation of Muslim religious law on millions of women in Saudi Arabia. She wrote: "I am writing on Thursday, May 4, when I am overjoyed, as are doubtless millions [more] female citizens. The reason for this is that today a royal decision was issued by the head of government [i.e., the King] concerning women's empowerment, that announces, in clear language, a far-reaching change in the status of women in the social equation. This [comes] after decades in which women suffered under a regime of traditional norms, misinterpretation of the precepts of Muslim religious law, and use of both to shackle them to the status of a dependent [entity], without the ability to make decisions even [about] rights given them by religious law. We welcome the royal decree issued by King Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz...

"The decree itself constitutes the implementation of Muslim religious laws. This [knowledge] is very important in understanding that the trend of the decree is to rectify [a flawed reality]. It is aimed at ending the widespread deception about how women should be treated, [based on] purely traditional norms that are enveloped in religious precept in order to make rigid and biased [decisions] on specific matters to prevent [women] from enjoying the rights granted them by religious law..."[11]

Saudi Journalist: The Decree Is A Great Decision That Acknowledges The Suffering Of Saudi Women And Will End Their Exclusion

'Azza Al-Sebaee, columnist for the Saudi Al-Watan daily, wrote about the historic importance of the royal decree, while also criticizing various Saudi elements, including liberals, who had consistently rejected the claims of Saudi women's rights activists. She called on these activists to take this opportunity to act to change laws that are incompatible with the decree:

"The date of May 4 may long remain deeply engraved in Saudi women's memories. My granddaughter may celebrate it with her girlfriends, who will light candles to remember the millions of Saudi women who could not without permission [from their guardian], could not get a job unless a man who may know nothing about [his charge] except that whose father passed away without designating a male to be her guardian, and therefore a search of the family tree was conducted until they identified him.

"More than the honorable royal decision changes our reality as Saudi women, it constitutes recognition of facts that many Saudi men, even public opinion leaders, have denied – among them preachers, writers, and intellectuals. referring to the liberals who have persistently and for years refused to recognize the suffering caused to Saudi women by the guardian system, on the grounds that these tales [of suffering] are brought up only by Saudi women jurists. [That was the situation until the issuing of] the royal decree, which has ended these conditions that caused such injustice [to women] in the matter of a guardian [and also] constitutes a legal reference whose specific number every Saudi woman should keep in her handbag and pull out to show anyone who demands [the consent of her] guardian in all matters referenced in the decree [as exempt].

"Several papers and websites have claimed that the guardianship [requirement] will remain in effect in four domains: marriage, passport [issuance], leaving the country, and release from prison. Actually, I don't know what these papers and websites were relying on in listing these exceptions, because the publications regarding the decree clarified that [it holds under] two conditions: that [implementing it] does not contravene, and that it does not contravene any explicit [state law]. How has [the act of] leaving a young woman in prison, waiting for her guardian's consent [to her release] after she finished serving her sentence, become [an act] sanctioned by Allah's shari'a or by the [state] law?

"The truth is that this great decision by our king will empower the honorable legislators in our country to stop any attempt to exclude [women] that is not [genuinely] based on the religion, the law or common sense. The ball is now in the court of all those who believed and still believe in the Saudi women's right to a better life. [They must] act to amend any law that does not [conform to] the content of this royal decree.[12]

Claims That The Decree Is Insufficient, Calls To Continue The Struggle For Women's Rights

While many rejoiced at the freedom granted to women in many basic aspects of their lives, some journalists and activists also criticized the decree as insufficient since it limits the guardianship system but does not abolish it altogether. Women's rights activists, journalists and Twitter users also demanded to see tangible results of this legislation, not just talk.

Twitter user Amal Ibrahim wrote: "We demand to abolish the guardian system, not [just] improve it! We demand to abolish it, not erase a few clauses! We demand to be treated like human beings!"


Twitter.com/right_women, May 7, 2017

The Twitter page "Abolish the Guardianship!", which posts daily lists of hashtags related to the anti-guardianship campaign, posted calls to continue the campaign, such as: "The campaign will continue until Saudi Arabia. We hope to see actual outcomes of the legislation, not just talk.


Twitter.com/FreeKsaWomen, May 4, 2017

Alongside these reactions there was also a prominent debate about the proper way to continue the campaign for women's rights in the kingdom following the issuing of the decree. Many activists, men and women, called to continue the struggle until the achievement of complete equality of rights and opportunities in all domains. An example is the hashtag "Female Students Go Out Without Their Guardian's Consent," launched on May 5, one day after the issuing of the decree. Messages posted under it called on women's universities in Saudi Arabia to stop forbidding students to leave the campus after school hours without the consent of their guardian.[13]  Other activists called on the public to welcome this significant step taken by the King for the benefit of his subjects, act to implement the decree but to avoid media.[14]

Saudi Columnist: The Struggle Is Far From Over; There Is Need For Full Equality In Rights And Duties And In The Workplace

Criticism of the decree's limited scope and calls to continue the campaign also found expression in the press. In her column in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, columnist Maram Meccawy stated that women still have a very long struggle ahead of them. She described several occupations in which Saudi women lack any professional authority and called on Saudi employers to treat men and women on their merits and qualifications, not their gender.

She wrote: "The directives recently issued by the King to the state apparatuses regarding women, [namely] that not every decision pertaining to them must be fully approved by a guardian, strengthens [the principle] that Saudi women are [equal] citizens and allows them to manage their affairs and realize their aspirations with far fewer complications [than before]... Unfortunately, we had only begun rejoicing over the new directives when users on social media began circulating a statement attributed to the spokesman of the [Saudi] Human Rights Commission, clarifying that "sending female students to study abroad, obtaining a permit to travel [abroad] and applying for a passport [still] require the guardian's consent,' and that '[permitting] women to drive is a controversial issue that is subject to the decision of society.' If this statement is authentic, it means that we, Saudi women, still have a very long struggle ahead of us. I am surprised that people continue to use society as an excuse in the matter of women driving. Because if we listened to society – especially in the  matter of women – we [Saudi] women would have still lacked ID cards and [access to] state schools and universities today. There would have been no female students learning abroad and no female doctors, engineers and lawyers. In short, women would have remained objects to be used by the men in their family, to be married off while still underage to whomever the men see fit and having no say in the matter...

"Let's leave aside [the issues of] traveling or studying [abroad], driving, and passports. [The fact still remains that] even women employed in important positions, [whose official status] is equal to that of their male colleagues and who are often more educated than their [male] colleagues, are still limited in their authority for one reason only: their gender. In banks, for example, we [women] are always asked to go to the women's  branch. But if we sit in front of a woman bank employee and make a request that goes beyond opening an account or depositing or withdrawing cash, or bring up some problem we have, [the bank employee always] calls her male boss, even if she is the branch manager, to consult with him and obtain his permission. Everyone knows that most women bank employees are tellers who receive clients and perform [basic] clerical jobs, while 'important' decisions are beyond their authority.  

"Things are not much different in the civil service or in universities... Except in the case of women-only universities, the university president and his deputies, as well as the faculty deans, department heads and program coordinators, are always men – with a handful of exceptions that can hardly be noticed... The absence of equal opportunity is noticeable, etc...  In short, in the workplace women are still inferior, and even if a woman  attains a  certain position, that position is defined in such a way as to deprive her of authority and compel her to turn to a man [for approval]...

"What do Saudi women dream of today? True empowerment, which means true citizenship that makes a woman genuinely equal to her male brother in right and duties – except in cases where the shari'a specifies otherwise, which are very few... The criterion [for hiring] should be [the candidate's] qualifications and suitability, while gender – male or female – should be a secondary or even marginal factor.  In Europe and America I would sometimes forget I was a woman, that is, I was not conscious directly of it, whereas [here] I am well-aware of it every morning as I impatiently wait for my driver to answer the phone and prepare the car [so he can drive me]."[15]

* B. Shanee is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 5, 2017.

[2] See Human Rights Watch report from July 2016, "Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System," hrw.org, July 16, 2017.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 5, 2017.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), May 5, 2017.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), May 5, 2017.

[6] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 24, 2017.

[7] Twitter.com/tnwer4, April 23, 2017.

[8] This hashtag was accompanied by other hashtags such as " Walk to Protest" which called on women to take to the streets unaccompanied by a guardian to protest the ban on women driving, as well as "Save Dina Ali," Save Mariam Alotaibi,"  and "Where Is Alaa Anazi," referring to women arrested by the Saudi authorities for opposing the guardianship system. Dina Ali fled from her guardian and left the country aiming to seek asylum in Australia, but was arrested in the Philippines and extradited to Saudi Arabia; Alaa Al-Anzi was arrested when she came to the airport to meet Dina Ali's plane and express support for her (raseef22.com, April 18, 2017). Mariam Alotaibi was arrested after leaving her home and moving to Riyadh without the permission of her guardian (alamalnews.org, April 20, 2017). 

[9] Twitter.com/2i_aa, twitter.com/xhb20x, July 30, 2016.

[10] Twitter.com/hamssonosi, May 4, 2017.

[11] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), May 7, 2017.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia, May 6, 2017.

[13] Twitter.com/HatoonKadi, May 7, 2017.

[14] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), May 8, 2017; 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 6, 2017.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 9, 2017.