By Maliha Al Shehab
Originally published in Arabic in Al Watan
The institution of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia is the only measure that grants a Saudi woman the status of an existent, that gives her permission to exercise the right to life, that allows her to enjoy the pleasures of this world and be an active member of society.
Without a male guardian, a woman is a mere secondary appendage in front of government institutions and treated as an object, rather than as a living human being and legal person. As a result, it is impossible for a woman to process any transaction of business by herself. A woman who loses a male shadow in her life loses her personhood, having neither an existence nor value, unable to satisfy her own survival needs nor experience life's simple pleasures.
In order to have acknowledgment of existence, the woman always needs a male shadow in all stages of her life, no matter how mature she is, how old she is, how pure and innocent she is, or how many important scientific achievements she has accomplished. Even if she proves that she has a mind capable of independent reflection, discernment and creativity, nothing can provide her with an identity except a male shadow, even if it is too short to cover her small toe. What makes male guardianship especially problematic is that it is not only a social custom, but also the rule of law that forms the basis from which Saudi government institutions deal with women.
It is a system that governs all women’s movements in such a way that it paralyzes them from exercising basic human rights. Those who have legislated male guardianship as state law have assumed that there is a guardian for each woman, and have supposed in “good faith” that a guardian would not oppress or mistreat his own property. They assume the guardian will be humane enough to be absolutely fair with his mother, wife, sister, and daughter. As a result, legislators have not issued any laws to protect the Saudi woman from any kind of oppression or injustice she might face from her guardian, nor established a policy that would protect a woman’s rights in the event that her guardian abuses the avowed protective purpose of guardian law and violates her rights.
In addition, legislation has not developed a solution for a woman whose life circumstances have deprived her from having a guardian. As a result, a woman who does not have a guardian faces great difficulties in all her transactions, such as: getting a passport, obtaining an ID card, getting married, pursuing an education or gaining employment. All those rights and acquisitions can only be granted to a Saudi woman with the consent of her guardian. Therefore, the unavailability of a guardian means a complete end to a woman’s life, business and interests.
Consequently, as Saudis, we desperately need to reconsider the guardian law and other legislation related to women’s rights, and work on updating them to remove obstacles that forbid a woman from the right to live her life with dignity and respect.