Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

SAUDI ARABIA: Women Still Treated as “Perpetual Minors”

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Apr 21 2008 (IPS) - Despite Saudi Arabia’s accession in 2001 to an international treaty banning discrimination against women, laws and customs in the kingdom ensures that women are treated like “perpetual minors”, according to a new report released Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Requirements that each female, regardless of age, be assigned a male guardian – be it a father, a husband, or even a son – who must give permission for their charges to do everything from travel abroad to study or seek medical care effectively deprives women of their most basic rights and makes their participation in public life far more difficult.

“The Saudi government sacrifices basic human rights to maintain male control over women,” according to Farida Deif, women’s rights researcher for HRW’s Middle East division. “Saudi women won’t make any progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies.”

With its most-conservative interpretation of Islam, Saudi Arabia is well known for its uniqueness as the world’s only country that does not permit women to drive an automobile. But the discrimination waged against women is far more basic, according to the new report, entitled “Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia”.

Based on interviews with 109 Saudi women from all walks of life during HRW’s first authorised visit to Saudi Arabia in late 2006, the 50-page report notes the legal incapacity of women extends even to their authority over their own children.

Women cannot open bank accounts for their children, nor enroll them in school or obtain information from their schools without the permission of the children’s father, whether or not the parents are divorced.

Under the kingdom’s Basic Law of Governance, Shariah, or Islamic law, constitutes the basic law of the land as upheld and interpreted by a deeply conservative religious establishment which, along with the royal family itself, HRW holds responsible for maintaining such rigorous male control over women.

It has rested its position on the guardianship of women primarily on an ambiguous verse in the Quran, Sura 4, Verse 34, which asserts: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.”

The Saudi religious establishment, backed up by the state, has interpreted this verse to mean that adult women should be treated like legal minors who are entitled to little or no authority over their own lives and well-being, according to HRW.

Each woman must have a male guardian – usually, but not always, her father or husband – who makes critical decisions regarding her life. In some cases, however, the guardian may even be her son.

Thus, the report cites one 40-year-old Saudi woman, who was divorced from her husband and whose father had died, who had to seek permission from her 23-year-old son to travel outside the kingdom.

Permission by male guardians is required for women to work, study, and marry, as well as to travel, according to the report.

The power given to male guardians actually contributes to women’s risk of abuse and family violence, according to the report. Even when guardians are found to be abusive against their charges, social workers, doctors, and lawyers who work on such cases told HRW that it was almost impossible for their guardianship to be dissolved or transferred.

Indeed, women must normally overcome great obstacles just to file a court case or be heard in court without a legal guardian. In some cases, women appearing in court must be accompanied by a male relative in order to verify their identity.

In contrast to their lack of authority over their own lives, females are generally held criminally responsible for acts they commit after reaching puberty.

In cases where permission from a male guardian is not explicitly required under the establishment’s interpretation of Shariah or when it is presumed to have been given under the government’s own guidelines, some officials still require it, according to report.

Despite a recent Interior Ministry decision permitting women over 45 to travel without permission, most airport officials continue to ask all women, regardless of age, for written proof that their guardian has authorised them to travel, according to the report.

Some hospitals require a guardian’s permission for women to undergo certain medical procedures or to be discharged, according to several women and health professionals interviewed by HRW.

The religious establishment has similarly propagated the strictest possible interpretation of Quranic injunctions to segregate men from women, an interpretation enforced by the government’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in all workplaces except hospitals.

That means that Saudi women often cannot gain access to government agencies that have not established separate female section unless they have a male representative to accompany them. Similarly, the fact that businesses and government agencies must set aside separate sections for female workers naturally acts as a disincentive for hiring women in the first place.

In 2005, the fact that the government had not set aside separate voting booths for women meant that half of the population that was at least theoretically eligible vote was effectively excluded from the country’s first municipal elections.

And while the kingdom has made significant strides in providing education to girls and women – female literacy increased from 16 percent in 1970 to 85 percent in 2005 – they still suffer discrimination in education, not only by the requirement that their guardians given them permission to attend school, but also by the fact that their facilities and treatment are often inferior to those provided to male students.

At the kingdom’s largest public university, for example, female students study in the older buildings with an inferior library, and the administration only allows them to use the main library in the male colleges one day per week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Moreover, female students living in dormitories told HRW they were prohibited by school authorities from leaving the premises except with a legal guardian.

Most women students are encouraged to become teachers, and some subjects, such as engineering, architecture, and political science, are forbidden to women in some faculties, according to the report.

HRW said such practices clearly violate the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Saudi Arabia acceded in 2001. It called on King Abudllah to promulgate by royal decree the dismantling of the legal guardianship system for adult women and establish an oversight mechanism to ensure its implementation.

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