Saudi Grants Women the Right to Travel Alone, Yet Imprisons + Tortures the Women Who Fight For Them
As I am sure many of you have heard of, and if you have not, this week Saudia Arabia has relaxed its male guardianship law, which now allows women to travel outside of the country freely. Now, this is an event to be celebrated for the millions of women living in the country, but it is one to be celebrated with a huge pinch of salt. Why? Because the reforms are not as rosy coloured as they are seen to be and the country continues to imprison and torture the women who were brave enough to stand up to the repressive laws against women, which treat them as second class citizens. So, before you celebrate and applaud the Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government on their progressive actions, I would like to introduce you to the incredible women who have fought for this freedom but are yet to be credited for their tireless efforts and experience the freedom for themselves.
Announced Friday, August 2nd all women over the age of 21 are able to apply for a passport without authorisation. They have also been granted the right to register births, marriage or divorce, as a result of this ruling. Moreover, it has rolling implications on women's right to work without facing discrimination based on gender, disability or age. This is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plan to transform the Saudi economy by 2030 with the aim of increasing the participation of women in the workforce. This historic move comes a little over a year after Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive.
In the old system, the male guardianship law gives husbands, fathers and other male relatives authority over the women in their family in making critical life decisions. However, some of these life decisions still remain in the hands of their male relatives, such as that of the right to marry, to live on their own. Women do not pass on citizenship to their children and neither are they allowed to provide consent for their children to marry.
Even writing this the terminology I have read about and that I am using unnerves me, women should never have to be granted permission to do this, it should just be. Again, this is easy for me to say living in a Western country where these rights have existed for me and women before me for a lot longer than women in Saudi Arabia. It goes without saying we cannot discuss the male guardianship and where it comes from without referencing the theocratic state of the country, with its laws grounded in the religion of Islam. Saudi Arabia's legal system is one rooted in Sharia Law -- Islamic law, which is derived from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. There is no codification of rules or system of judicial precedent, there are several schools of Islamic law which offer opinions on specific issues of the law. Saudi Arabia traditionally follows the Hanbali school of thought, but this has become watered down with time, yet some courts still apply Hanbali law.
Understanding the Islamic context of the laws of Saudi makes it easier to understand where the male guardianship system of laws comes from. There is rooting in the Quran itself, predominantly in the chapter of the Quran which is hailed by many Muslims for its dedication to women, the chapter in question - Surah Nisa. "Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintainence] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard." (4:34). Within the context of this verse and how the Saudi government and legal system works, it becomes very self-explanatory as to where the male guardianship system has been derived from. Alas, this post is not about religion, although it is important to understand its use in the Saudi state and whole other post could be written on it, this post is to raise awareness and celebrate the remarkable efforts of the women being silenced by the Saudi regime.
Now to introduce the incredibly brave women who have fought for the above freedoms, yet have been silenced over the last year in a crackdown on Saudi feminists. Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the most well-known from the Saudi women's rights movement. Her story is one that is deeply saddening and incredibly chilling. Loujain was pulled over whilst driving in the UAE in April 2018 and was deported back to Saudi Arabia, where she was detained for three days and freed. She was taken from her family home in Riyadh, where she was blindfolded and tossed into the boot of car to be taken to a detention centre she has called the "palace of terror." Hathloul has been tortured and threatened with rape and death. This has been going on for over a year, as of right now she is still being held by the Saudi government. Saud al-Qahtani, former advisor to the Crown Prince had overseen her torture, according to Loujain's brother, Walid. Walid has said that his sister said that al-Qahtani "sat in one of the sessions. He told her: 'I'll kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you into the sewer system. But before that, I'll rape you." Despite, the horrific treatment she has been going through her brother emphasised her concerns for the fate of women in Saudi.
Loujain is not the only one, she was arrested along with ten other women in the government's attempts to silence the outspoken women who had initially campaigned for the right to drive. The arrests consisted of campaigners Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan. Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor of computer science, mother to five children and grandmother of eight. She is a leading women's rights activist in Saudi and has worked with other activists like Hathloul to establish a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. Eman al-Nafjan is known for her online work in her blog entitled, Saudiwoman's Weblog, which focuses on Saudi society, culture, women and human rights issues.
Alongside other activists, both women were imprisoned weeks before the driving ban was lifted in 2018. Al-Yousef and al-Nafjan reported incidents of physical and sexual abuses they were subject to during their imprisonment and were released on bail this year. Amnesty International explains some of the treatment women like Azizia, Eman and Loujain experienced. This includes an interrogator falsely telling a detainee that her family members had died and was made to believe this for an entire month. Another account stated that two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched and another reported waterboarding, another reported electric shock torture which is consistent with Al-Hathloul's injuries reported by her parents.
Eleven women were put on trial for a coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom due to accusations that they had been in contact with foreign diplomats and journalists. Women fighting for the right to drive, for the right to travel, for the right to have autonomy over themselves and the decisions they make are seen as a threat to the running of the Saudi state. That sounds like a very fragile state to me, if it can be dismantled by women demanding their right to control over their own bodies and lives. Seven of the women have been bailed out in early 2019, but Hathloul's family are not hopeful of Loujain's release. Observers have said the particularly horrific treatment of Loujain was due to her role as a lead feminist campaigner, as her trial continues to drag on there seems to be no end in sight.
And this is why we need to be cautious of the Saudi state and not applaud Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and instead make a much louder noise as to why his state is capturing and torturing the women who have been fighting for the reforms he is being praised for. It is also worth noting the highly publicised case of Rahaf Mohammed and more recently, the case of the Al-Showaiki sisters (Dua and Dalal) who have taken the risk of escaping the country and as a result their cases permeated into the Western media and both parties have been given help by legal counsel and journalists in the West and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau granting Rahaf a special fast-tracked refugee status. Finally, if you really want to be seen as a progressive Muslim state, one that is championing women's rights reforms, Prince Salman, free the women who have been fighting for this change or is your state so fragile that the freedom of a few strong, intelligent and outspoken women can cause Saudi Arabia to crumble?