Through her contacts in the area, the author was able to speak with Saudi women and men affected by the male legal guardianship system. The interviewees will remain anonymous for their safety. The opinions they express are not based on studies, polling, or data, but rather taken from personal observation and experience, and are not attributable to the Human Rights Brief, American University Washington College of Law, or any other organization.
Q: What is your perspective on male legal guardianship in Saudi Arabia?
A: “My perspective on male legal guardianship in Saudi Arabia: It is burdensome. I do not want to have to consider women as potential responsibilities; they are far more interesting when they are fully autonomous and independent – When they are considered equals.
What I am talking about are the negative almost comic realities of the male guardianship system – there are many cases in the densely populated, richer, well educated, well-traveled areas, where families coordinate to ignore its effects and empower young women. Where husbands, fathers, brothers, understand the socio-economic value of an independent woman.
Personally, I do not want my wife, mother, daughter or sister to have to depend on me to make decisions and act on them. After a while, they start forgetting how to do that for themselves and just depend on their guardian as a sort of baby sitter. They can rely on me in times of need and true vulnerability, out of love – I’ll be there for them always. But when it is a self-inflicted, addictive dependence…it is repulsive.
I have not met a single woman of any age that approves of it. They all hate it and think it is wasteful and insulting.
The worst effects of the male guardianship system are that it weakens women and far too often forces them into a position of either obstinate, violent rebelling or completely accepted total subjugation. The latter women feel like broken human beings. The rebellious are woefully aggressive and doubt all men as if traumatized.
When the idea that a woman needs a man to be authorized to do anything becomes institutionalized and formalized based on divine interpretation, there is systemic and deeply ingrained low expectations of women… and when we consider that we get what we expect out of people, well it drastically reduces the imagined potential and ambitions of many ladies.
The fundamental unit of a civilization is the couple upon which the family is built and the values are transmitted. For that to work correctly there needs to be a partnership of equals based on mutual respect. It is obvious to the west, but it is a fundamental Truth that is lost on many here – as a result, there is an often a dynamic of rivalry between man and wife, or daughter and father driven by a desire to control/manipulate one’s way to freedom VS preserving the honor of the family through reputation of the woman.
A man that is not a good guardian is not a real man. This causes for a lot of misplaced macho bravado. It’s annoying.
There is a rare middle ground only in the cases where an enlightened father treats his daughters equally to his sons – but it is rare. Desire is murdered by the feeling of responsibility – and in a country where marriage is a big very big deal, where there is no desire; there is divorce – a 70% divorce rate from what I gathered.
Women face more challenges than men do and as a result end up being far more interesting than men.”
Q: What are the pros and cons?
There are absolutely no pros to this system. A byproduct is that because women need authorization to do anything and are considered liabilities, they do not have to spend money. Instead, they save the money they make and they have a safety net when it comes to taking business risks. Indeed, if they lose their money than they have a male guardian to fall back on. It’s a Faustian deal but in the end, women have businesses worth 385 billion dollars.
It’s a Faustian deal, because in the end, women still need the authorization of a man to work or start a business. There’s plenty of room for blackmail here.
There are many horror stories about men abusing the position they have:
- A man feigns love to marry a rich woman, becomes her guardian, syphons all the money, puts her in a decrepit state, marries a second woman and uses the acquired money to fund his lavish life. Similarly a father can do the same to a daughter that inherits money from her grandfather (or whoever else).
- Daughters see their father leave them and move to the USA (or another country) and barely ever come to Saudi Arabia. So long as he is alive he is the legal guardian, but seeing as he’s never in Saudi Arabia, the daughters can’t do anything for themselves – they can’t even leave the country to see the world, they have to forge documents so that they can work and fund their lives.
- Father refuses for his daughter to receive any education (I personally know one such victim) because he won’t meet the man she wants to marry or give him a chance, but she insists she should.
- Judges refusing to give full power of attorney to the daughters/wives/sisters of a man whom wishes to do so because it is not sharia compliant.”
Q: Saudi Arabian women have filed a few petitions within the last decade to overthrow this system and the Saudi Arabian government has agreed, but has been very slow in acting on the petitions, why?
“The enlightened, the educated – those that are against the male guardianship system, truly represent only a minority. Not many have had the chance to travel, and a lot have just gotten used to their version of normal – where men are in power. They don’t question it. I would say less than 8% of the population is well traveled.
Divorced women with children – many have irresponsible ex-husbands/fathers that break entirely free of the old relationship. They are obliged only to pay a 500 SAR (140 USD) allowance a month for the kid, no matter the social status. So when such fathers ignore their kids, well the kids can’t do anything without the father’s approval but the father is inexistent! Unnecessary Catch-22.
Cultural brainwashing has made male guardianship’s legitimacy derive from holy texts – so testing it, questioning it, changing it, is equivalent to doubting the word of god – which is the BIGGEST crime you can commit here. It’s like denying Islam itself.
It’s factually incorrect and any Sharia scholar will tell you that the subject of male guardianship is subject to many interpretations. The prospect of codifying it or granting women more freedom is a matter of human – not divine legislation.
Saudi Arabia consisted of tribal societies at the time of founding. There were tribal laws, and to outlaw these systems is to be doomed. These traditions advocated the concept of manhood, obligating men to protect and provide to women out of nobility – that’s because women were perceived as inferior to men both physically and mentally.
The founder of Saudi understood these rules, and for politics sake, he chose to respect these rules. There’s an unspoken pact between the Saudi monarch and the heads of tribes – respect our traditions and we’ll continue to support you.”
Q: What are the greatest challenges that Saudi Arabian women face in overcoming the male legal guardianship system?
A: “The constitution of Saudi Arabia is Sharia (the prophet’s traditions and the Coran) – therefore the Saudi legislator is hesitant to touch on anything regulated by Sharia. It’s known that male legal guardianship was regulated and discussed in Islam. But what most people don’t know is that anything regulated by Sharia is not codified in Saudi – and because we follow the Sunni schools which has four different jurisprudence systems, each school discusses and regulates male guardianship differently, and each method is correct, according to Saudi legislation – but it’s not codified… so one school is more lax than another while another is far stricter.
It’s all boiling down to your luck with the judge and how laid back he is, cut it’s not a scientific application of law… rather… an opinion based one.
Because of the tribal and religious nature of Saudi Arabia, they chose to follow the stricter school of jurisprudence and left the matter as is.
There are examples where Saudi Arabia took the initiative to codify topics previously left to Sharia – for instance, Hajj (pilgrimage) is heavily regulated by Sharia, but the government saw that it needed to be updated/regulated, by ensuring that each person that wishes to perform hajj, needs a license. Without a license a Hajj is not lawful.
A license was not mentioned by Sharia, but for the sake of the general interest, the license requirement was added.
So the idea of codifying and modifying Sharia law to make it more consistent with the Society’s needs and greater interest is not without precedent. However, because of the political situation and instability – they don’t want to deal with the issue right now.
Mind you – the government JUST slashed 60% of the country’s work force’s salaries by anything between 30% & 15%… you don’t want to add insult to injury now.”
Q: What do you think the effects would be if male legal guardianship was disbanded, both on the Saudi Arabian government and the people of Saudi Arabia?
“The only way the system will be thrown out is with education and enlightenment of the majority of the people in every position in society, administration, education, government etc. – and it seems to be the case today.
The religious police was stripped of its authority and Mohammed Bin Salman wants to make Saudi society dynamic and vibrant as a part of the 2030 vision to make Saudi a great country rich with tourism amongst other things. Women like to travel to escape their confinement. For Saudi to be a tourism hub, their confinement must be eliminated. For that, women’s rights and freedoms need to be enforced and respected.
Tensions at first in the less educated and plebeian regions of Saudi Arabia where tribal traditions and disconnection from the “real world” are still a way of life.
But in major cities there will be a majority of relief and those that are afraid will see there is nothing to fear. Families will fight and frustrations will emerge, but overall, within a short time, there will be a renewed conviction in the newer system.
The government will see administrative processes become far more efficient as women are able to conduct their affairs without a male guardian – this will make for significant savings in time. Men that would otherwise not be productive will remain productive by avoiding having to take time off to authorize things for their female dependents.
Removing guardianship doesn’t mean equal opportunity, but it definitely means a step in the right direction.”
For more information on and analysis of the male legal guardianship system, click here.