How can there be guardianship over women in a modern Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia began implementing reforms, such as abolishing slavery and introducing female education, long before HRW was established in 1978
So much has happened over the past 10 days: a terrorist attack in France on Bastille Day, a failed Turkish coup, Donald Trump officially become the Republican Party nominee and Pakistani reality star Qandeel Baloch was brutally murdered in a so-called ‘honor killing.’
As such, it may be understandable that many of us might have missed the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report which criticized male guardianship over women in Saudi Arabia. Loosely defined, male guardianship is a practice whereby women require the consent from their husbands or male relatives to travel, work or carry out other various activities.
However, unlike most of the above mentioned disasters, the good news when it comes to the male guardianship issue is that there is actually something that can be done to resolve it. I say this with confidence because I know for a fact that much of the matter is related to outdated customs and traditions.
Indeed, we are no longer living in tribal times where people conquered each other and women needed protection from harm and enslavement. As such, I’d like to think that most people share the view that the current guardianship practices – where a male child may find himself responsible for granting or denying his own mother the right to travel freely – is illogical and should absolutely be reconsidered.
Saudi Arabia began implementing reforms, such as abolishing slavery and introducing female education, long before HRW was established in 1978. Similarly, the reforms will not stop, regardless of whether this New York-based organization ceases or continues to existFaisal J. Abbas
Yet, instead of focusing on what matters, many were far more interested in ‘shooting the messenger’, arguing that HRW was an ‘agent of a foreign government’, ‘has a hidden agenda’ or if it ‘was paid by the enemies of the kingdom’ to release this report.
Now, while such accusations may or may not be true, they will not – even if proven accurate – eliminate the fact that much of what the report entails is actually true. Of course, if there are indeed any inaccuracies, then there are official state bodies and channels which could comment or request a correction if necessary.
Yet, it is far more important for the concerned bodies in the kingdom to focus their efforts on continuously enhancing and accelerating their own reforms program. Likewise, human rights groups must understand that Saudi Arabia began implementing reforms, such as abolishing slavery and introducing female education, long before HRW was established in 1978. Similarly, the reforms will not stop, regardless of whether this New York-based organization ceases or continues to exist.
A bit of progress, but more is definitely needed
As per royal decree, one-third of the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s consultative body, must now consist of women. Furthermore, there has not been a time in Saudi history where women were more encouraged to be part of the work force, to study abroad and to excel in different aspects of life.
However, the situation – as even people inside the Saudi government would tell you – is still far from ideal. In addition to the male guardianship issue, Saudi Arabia remains unique in its ban on women driving, which is another phenomenon that should be addressed, given that it also has no religious or legal roots.
Of course, some Saudi female activists may tweet saying that they are in favor of male guardianship, arguing that this system actually protects them as women. I don’t agree with this argument, nor should you be led to believe that they speak for everyone in the kingdom. (A recommended read on this issue is Jasmine Bager’s recent Time magazine article titled “I am a Saudi women who has a male guardian. He is my greatest supporter.”)
At the same time, it is sad to see some progressive Saudi women, who were granted state scholarships to study abroad and offered support to become forces for positive change, actively making-up conspiracies about the situation.
Let’s face it, day-to-day life for Saudi women is already extremely challenging; as such, there is no need to exaggerate the reality by falsely claiming – for example - that the local media deliberately opts to not report on women's rights.
In fact, most Saudi media outlets (whether Arabic or English speaking) are accused by many religious conservatives of being ‘too liberal’ and of promoting ‘Western values’ due to their almost unanimous stances when it comes to discrimination against women or reporting on issues that matter to them.
We should also remember that women are not the only ones facing challenges in Saudi Arabia. For example, progress could be achieved when it comes to the living/working conditions of expats, minorities and issues relating to enhancing freedom of expressionFaisal J. Abbas
Of course, we should also remember that women are not the only ones facing challenges in Saudi Arabia. For example, progress could be achieved when it comes to the living/working conditions of expats, minorities and issues relating to enhancing freedom of expression.
Nevertheless, there are many Saudis who wouldn’t want to see anyone, let alone women, being repressed. Yes, there are those who are ultra-conservative among us, but at the same time, many men will openly say that they support women driving and all forms of guardianship on adult females removed.
In a nutshell, there are parts in the recent HRW report that require serious contemplation. However, if human rights groups want to be taken seriously - and actually help in resolving the issues they say they care about - then they should invest more in preventing their work from leading to misleading generalizations.
One of the potential issues that may arise from not carefully phrasing such reports is an assumption that ALL Saudi women are suffering, and/or that ALL Saudi men agree with the guardianship system, which is simply untrue.
To put this into context: if you were from the US, how would you feel if we assumed ALL Americans shared Trump’s degrading views on women, agreed with his views on banning Muslims and Mexicans, or approved his approach of revoking press accreditation when a media outlet reports on him critically?
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, and is a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.