- Saudi Arabia’s guardianship can trap women in oppressive, stifling lives, and the number of attempts to flee the country is increasing.
- Several women have left the kingdom in high-profile circumstances, all citing the Saudi guardianship system.
- Saudi laws require men to give women permission to do basic things, like leaving the home, getting a passport, or handling money.
- Here are the stories of eight women – including one US citizen – that illustrate how restrictive the laws are.
Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws are leaving women stuck in desperate situations, and driving them to risk severe punishment by trying to escape the country.
On Tuesday, it was reported that a US citizen is effectively trapped in Riyadh with her four-year-old daughter. She is stuck in Saudi Arabia a year after she divorced her Saudi husband, because he remains her legal “guardian” and must give her permission to leave.
The woman, Bethany Vierra, is the latest in a sting of cases which illustrate how much control the guardianship system has over women in Saudi Arabia.
1) An American trapped by her ex-husband
Under the Saudi interpretation of Islam, every woman must have a male guardian – usually a husband, but sometimes a brother, or even a son – to make daily decisions for her.
Women need permission to leave the house, go to school, access money they have earned, and travel outside the kingdom. Adult women in Saudi Arabia, therefore, have the same legal rights as children.
In practice, guardians can be much more liberal than the law allows, but it is up to each man’s personal discretion.
Vierra, from Washington state, first moved to Saudi Arabia to teach at a women’s university as part of her studies in 2011. She ended up staying there after falling in love with a Saudi man, whom she married in 2013, her cousin Nicole Carroll told The New York Times.
They had a child together called Zaina, but divorced in 2018, because, the report said, Vierra’s husband started to lose his temper and swear in front of their daughter.
But despite the divorce, Vierra still found herself under the control of her ex-husband and guardian.
In February 2019 Vierra’s husband let her Saudi residency expire, making her an illegal alien. Having an expired residency permit means that Vierra can’t carry out daily transactions, like access her bank account. Only her husband can fix this.
If Vierra does get permission to leave the country, four-year-old Zaina – a Saudi citizen – would also likely have to stay behind, as her father is her guardian.
2) The teen whose family “consider me as their property”
18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed gripped the world this January as she live-tweeted her escape from the kingdom.
She says her Saudi family treated her like a slave and “consider me as their property.” She feared they would kill her after she renouncing Islam, so decided to escape.
As part of Saudi guardianship laws, women need to secure permission to leave the country.
Only male guardians can approve travel out of Saudi.
So she waited until she and her family went on holiday to nearby Kuwait to escape. Once outside the kingdom, Mohammed was able to buy a flight from Kuwait to Thailand and seek asylum, which she ultimately was granted in Canada.
3) The girl whose father tied her wrists and ankles as punishment
Shahad Mohaimeed escaped to Sweden in 2017 at the age of 17.She spoke to INSIDER at length about her life in Saudi Arabia, and described relentless violence at the hands of her father.
She cited the Saudi guardianship system as the key barrier to women’s freedom in the kingdom. She said she couldn’t buy tampons, and that her mother couldn’t access her own salary, because the system meant only men in her family could handle money.
Mohaimeed also said she was often beaten by her father, who tied her wrists and ankles as punishment for misdemeanours such as talking to a man who wasn’t related to her. He also regularly threatened to kill her, she said.
“My family are an abusive family,” she told INSIDER.
4) The woman who got caught mid-escape
Dina Ali Lasloom fled in April 2017 after being forced into an arranged marriage with a man chosen by her father.
Male guardians in Saudi Arabia can consent to a marriage on behalf of a girl or woman, meaning forced marriage still exists in practice, despite an official government ban in 2005.
Saudi authorities, accompanied by her relatives, captured Lasloom one day after her escape. She had been trying to go to Australia, and was caught during her transit in the Philippines. She was returned to Saudi Arabia, and has not been heard from since.
A moment's silence for Dina Ali Lasloom who tried the same and was dragged back to oblivion by a cruel, unjust system :-( pic.twitter.com/QvVXgzRfd0
— ????Peter Bayley ???? (@peterbayley) February 12, 2019
A video of her screaming as her uncles approached her in the airport went viral at the time. Rights groups fear she is held in a rehabilitation centre – which has been described as a being effectively a prison – which requires her guardian’s permission for her to leave.
5) The 24-year-old forced to do “nothing all day”
24 year-old Salwa (she did not provide a second name) made it out of Saudi Arabia in May 2018, and found freedom in Canada.
“There’s no life in Saudi Arabia. I just went to the university then moved back home and did nothing all day,” she told the BBC.
Women in the kingdom need permission from their guardian even to leave the house, under the strictest interpretations of the law. And when they do, they are often made to cover up with the maximum amount of clothing, like a burqa.
Salwa, who now lives in Montreal, celebrated that in her new home “When I want to leave my apartment I can just leave. I don’t need consent. I just go outside. I just wear what I want to wear.”
Salwa also described how guardianship leaves adult women with the same rights as children. “They hurt me, and told me bad things like men are superior,” she told the BBC. “No one forces me to do anything here.”
6&7) The girls who would rather die than go back to Saudi
In October 2018, New York authorities pulled the bodies of two sisters, bound together with duct tape, out of the Hudson River.
Tala and Rotana Farea, 16 and 22, had moved to the US from Saudi Arabia with their mother in 2015, and were placed with a foster family in Fairfax, Virginia.
The day before the sisters were found dead in the Hudson River, the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, had told the Farea family the girls had to leave the US and return to Saudi Arabia,New York Police Department (NYPD) detectives said.
The sisters “would rather inflict harm on themselves and commit suicide than return to Saudi Arabia,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea told reporters.
هذه النحيلةَ الهادئة تجدُ ألف طريقةٍ للمُضي قُدماً من أصل طريقتين فقط "هذه حقيقة" ..
فإما أن تُصفقَ لها كصديق أو تصيح خلفها كعدوٌ بائس "هذا خيارك" … pic.twitter.com/1qVzt5Z8Jc
— مريم العتيبي♐️ (@MERiAM_AL3TEEBE) February 1, 2019
8) “I’m not going back to hell again.”
Saudi rights campaigner Mariam al-Otaibi was found to have disobeyed her guardian in April 2017 when she fled home, and was arrested under the country’s guardianship laws.
al-Otaibi told police that her brothers beat her after she launched a campaign against guardianship, including spreading the #IAmMyOwnGuardian hashtag.
She fled home in search for an independent life, and after she was caught, she was subsequently jailed for 104 days at Riyadh’s al-Malaz prison.
Before she went to jail, she tweeted: “I’m not going back to hell again.”
Under Saudi law women can be kept in prison as long as their guardian wants, as he is the one who has to sign for her when she leaves the prison. But authorities released al-Otaibi after her 104-day incarceration without her father’s approval, making her the first Saudi woman to be released from jail without male approval.
Her case signalled a small victory for women under the guardianship system, though it was an anomaly. There have been no other reported cases of women leaving prison without their guardians’ approval.
Guardianship laws are changing, but very slowly
More than 1,000 women flee Saudi Arabia every year, The Economist reported in May 2017, citing figures from the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University. Guardianship is likely the foremost reason for their escapes.
The system is changing, albeit slowly.
Saudi Arabia told the UN in 2013 that it would abolish the male guardianship system and end all discrimination.
In April 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the kingdom’s de facto ruler –told all Saudi government agencies that women should not be blocked from getting government services because they don’t have guardian consent, unless regulations require it.
According to Human Rights Watch, the kingdom has made some changes, such as no longer requiring women to provide a guardian’s permission to work, or ending the need to bring a male relative to identify them in court.
In January 2018, Saudi women were allowed to spectate at a soccer match for the first time ever. That June, under Crown Prince Mohammed’s instructions, the kingdom allowed women to drive without their guardians, lifting a ban that had been put in place in the 1950s.
Many women believe the piecemeal reforms aren’t enough. Earlier this year thousands of women around the world tweeted under the hashtag #اسقطو_الولايه_ولا_كلنا_بنهاجر – Arabic for “end guardianship or we will all migrate” – in solidarity.
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