Saudi Arabia’s entrenched system of "male guardianship" dictates that every woman must have a male guardian, whether this be her husband, her father, her brother, or even her own son.
From deciding whether she can work or marry, to whether she should travel abroad or access healthcare, a male guardian wields an enormous power over a woman’s life. With Boxed In, a new report on the impact of male guardianship on women's lives, Human Rights Watch has released a series of powerful animations to reveal just how restrictive the system of male guardianship really is.
Illustrating a range of scenarios where a woman would need to seek permission from a male guardian, the videos highlight the oppressive impact of a system that treats women as "legal minors," whilst doing little to protect them from abuse.
The report reveals that Saudi women often find themselves in a catch-22 situation — during divorce proceedings, the husband still remains his wife’s guardian. And if a woman flees an abusive guardian and seeks refuge in a shelter, he can force her to return home by signing for her release on her behalf.
“You don’t have power over your body … It makes you nervous every step of your life,” said Reema* one of the women interviewed for the report. “Everything that you put so much effort and time into could just end in a second if your guardian decides.”
“My son is my guardian, believe it or not, and this is really humiliating ... My own son, the one I delivered, the one I raised, he is my guardian,” a 62-year-old Saudi woman told Human Rights Watch.
Saudi women have campaigned to end this repressive code, but the country has been slow to abandon the practice. In the last decade, the government has taken steps to limit the level of control a guardian can exert, introducing a law to criminalize domestic violence and decreeing that a woman no longer needed a man’s permission to work — although there is still no penalty for companies that continue to require this. In some ways, 2015 marked a high point for women’s rights in the country, as women were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time. However, Human Rights Watch argues that progress has been far to slow.
"Saudi women have been told for decades achieiving their rights will just take time," said Sarah Whitson, Middle East Director for Human Rights Watch. "Saudi women shouldn't have to wait a moment longer to be treated as equal members of Saudi society."
“We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us,” one 25-year old Saudi woman said.
Denying a woman the right to move freely, shape her own choices, control her own body, and simply be herself, male guardianship legitimizes the notion that a woman should not have a mind of her own. In a country where women are even banned from driving cars, the report concludes that the male guardianship system remains the most significant barrier to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.