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When the Saudi government came before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva today, no one was surprised that its record on women’s rights was severely criticized. What was surprising, however, was a statement by Dr. Bandar al-Aiban, the head of the governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission, who said that Saudi women do not face systemic discrimination in the Kingdom.  Saudi women were full citizens able to dispose of their property and manage their affairs without seeking permission from anyone, he said. So what happened to the male guardianship system?  

A 2008 Human Rights Watch report documents how this system, grounded in the most restrictive interpretation of an ambiguous Quranic verse,  prevents women from conducting official government business, travelling abroad, marrying, pursuing higher education, or even undergoing certain medical procedures without  permission from their male guardians—a husband, father, brother, or even a young son. They are banned from driving.

The system reduces women to the status of children, unable to make important decisions about their lives. Despite the apparent lack of written legal provisions or official decrees explicitly mandating male guardianship, the Saudi government uses a complex arsenal of laws, policies and informal mechanisms to enforce this oppressive system. In the face of many calls to end male guardianship, including at   today’s council session in Geneva, the Saudi government has tinkered around its edges, but has so far declined to unequivocally dismantle the system. In fact, it continues to play a central role in enforcing it, with the support of the religious establishment. In doing so, the Saudi government chooses to ignore not only international law but elements of the Islamic legal tradition that support equality between men and women. 

It’s really hard to see how Dr. al-Aiban can argue that Saudi women are full citizens of the Kingdom, when the evidence is clear that they are not.

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