A few months ago, I was lucky enough to meet a young Saudi woman—we’ll call her Zahra. Zahra was smart, eloquent, and funny. She wanted to pursue a degree outside Saudi Arabia in a field not yet available in her country.
But, Zahra said, her father, her male guardian, told her “no.” When Zahra’s sister asked to travel abroad to study, he said the same. When Zahra needed to travel for work, yet again, it was no. Zahra called lawyers seeking help. Once more: No. In Saudi Arabia, the choice was his, not hers. Zahra and her sister were stuck.
Over the past year, I interviewed dozens of Saudi women for a Human Rights Watch report on the Saudi guardianship system. Repeatedly, I heard stories like Zahra’s —ambitious women who have accomplished incredible things, who want to accomplish more, but to whom their male guardians and their government keep saying “No.”
The veto power a male guardian retains over a woman’s choices lasts throughout her life. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, usually her husband or her father, but in some cases, even her son. She must obtain his permission to travel abroad or to marry, and may be required to get his consent to work or get health care. She may have difficulty taking various other steps as well without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims.
As Zahra said, “We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us.”
Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have called on the government for years to abolish the male guardianship system. The government has made some changes—encouraging women to work, increasing education opportunities, passing a law in 2013 against domestic violence. When Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled Vision2030, the country’s wide-ranging plan for its future, many hoped more change would follow.
Yet, in today’s Saudi Arabia, women continue to be boxed in. The male guardianship system not only hampers the ability of half of Saudi Arabia’s population to show their country just how much they could contribute, but also undermines the Saudi government’s own dreams for the country’s future.
Vision2030 wants to enable women to contribute to the economy. The government encourages women to work, but doesn’t penalize employers who won’t hire a woman without a male guardian’s permission. The state pays for women to study abroad on government scholarships, but officially requires male guardian’s permission before they can go and a male relative to accompany them while abroad. I spoke with women who were prevented from attending conferences for work or higher education abroad because they were fighting with their husband, or their father disagreed.
Zahra told me: “Whenever someone tells me, ‘You should have a five-year plan,’ I say I can’t. I’ll have a five-year plan and then my dad would disagree. Why have a plan?”
Guardianship doesn’t just hamper women economically. It can condemn women to a life of violence. Saudi Arabia has criminalized domestic abuse, but continues to recognize legal claims brought by guardians against female dependents for disobedience or fleeing the guardian’s home.
The male guardianship system itself is inherently exploitative, according men an incredible amount of power. Some men have conditioned their consent for a woman to work or travel on her paying him large sums of money. One woman told me that her close friend, who worked at a prestigious university abroad, had to hire a lawyer to negotiate with her father, who was seeking financial compensation in return for granting his daughter travel permission.
I spoke with four women who were physically abused by their male guardians. They told me they felt there were no real options for them since the authorities might return them to their abusers or their abusers might bring legal claims against them, perhaps sending them to prison. They wanted to flee Saudi Arabia. But, without their male guardian’s permission, they couldn’t even leave the country, let alone apply for asylum somewhere else.
When Zahra called lawyers asking for their help to transfer guardianship from her father to another male relative, she told them that her father had beaten her and her sister when they were younger, and now was preventing them from work and educational opportunities. Zahra paraphrased their response, “As long as he is not beating you, he can do whatever he wants.”
The Saudi government should immediately abolish the male guardianship system and let women choose for themselves what paths they will pursue. It is long past due.
Zahra, her sister and the millions of other Saudi women held back by this system deserve nothing less. They’ve heard enough of no.
Kristine Beckerle is a fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report on the Saudi guardianship system. She works in the Middle East and North Africa Division, where she focuses on Saudi Arabia and women’s rights.