(London, April 21, 2008) – Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship of women and policies of sex segregation stop women from enjoying their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Saudi women often must obtain permission from a guardian (a father, husband, or even a son) to work, travel, study, marry, or even access health care.
“The Saudi government sacrifices basic human rights to maintain male control over women,” said Farida Deif, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi women won’t make any progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies.”
The authorities essentially treat adult women like legal minors who are not entitled to authority over their lives and well-being. Saudi women are similarly denied the legal right to make even trivial decisions for their children. Women cannot open bank accounts for children, enroll them in school, obtain school files, or travel with their children without written permission from the child’s father.
Saudi women are prevented from accessing government agencies that have not established female sections unless they have a male representative. The need to establish separate office spaces for women is a disincentive to hiring female employees, and female students are often relegated to unequal facilities with unequal academic opportunities.
Male guardianship over adult women also contributes to their risk of confronting family violence, making it difficult for survivors of violence to avail themselves of protection or redress. Social workers, physicians, and lawyers told Human Rights Watch about the near impossibility of removing guardianship even from male guardians who are abusive.
And even where permission from a male guardian is not mandatory or stipulated under government guidelines, some officials will ask for it. Despite national regulations to the contrary, some hospitals require a guardian’s permission to allow women to be admitted, agree to medical procedures for themselves or their children, or be discharged.
Officials do not always follow limitations on the power of guardians imposed recently by the government. Despite an Interior Ministry decision allowing women over 45 to travel without permission, airport officials continue to ask all women for written proof their guardian has allowed them to travel. Travel restrictions can also be humiliating for many women.
Fatma A., a 40-year-old Saudi woman living in Riyadh, cannot board a plane without written permission from her son, her legal guardian. “My son is 23 years old and has to come all the way from the Eastern Province to give me permission to leave the country,” she told Human Rights Watch.
A Saudi woman’s access to justice is also severely constrained. Women continue to have trouble filing a court case or even being heard in court without a legal guardian. Women are required to wear a full-face veil (niqab) in court and be accompanied by a male relative able to verify their identity. Saudi Arabia has established no minimum age of criminal responsibility for girls, while the authorities generally decree puberty as the threshold for treating children as adults.
“It’s astonishing that the Saudi government denies adult women the right to make decisions for themselves but holds them criminally responsible for their actions at puberty,” said Deif. “For Saudi women, reaching adulthood brings no rights, only responsibilities.”
By failing to eliminate these discriminatory practices, the Saudi government is failing in its commitment to guarantee women and girls their rights to education, employment, freedom of movement, health, and equality in marriage. In doing so, the Saudi government ignores not only international law but even elements of the Islamic legal tradition that support equality and full legal capacity for women.
Human Rights Watch calls on Saudi Arabia to take immediate action to address the human rights abuses resulting from male guardianship policies. The Saudi government should abide by its international obligations and dismantle this grossly discriminatory system. The king should establish an oversight mechanism to ensure that government agencies no longer request permission from a guardian to allow adult women to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care, or access any public service. The authorities should establish female sections or other accommodations in every government office and courtroom in order to ensure women have equal access to every level of government.