(Despite winning certain rights over the years, especially the right to drive and vote, Saudi women are still subjugated by the repressive male guardian system which causes many to flee abroad. Photo: Shutterstock)
March 11, 2019: Stories of Saudi women being mistreated in their country have long been in the news. According to many human rights organizations, Saudi Arabia is one of the worst countries for women to live in.
Saudi women have long fought discrimination for decades. For example, in 1991, a group of them drove through the streets of Riyadh calling for the ban on female driving to be lifted.
In recent years, there has been increasing international spotlight on Saudi women fleeing their country for a better life in the west.
Most recently, teenager Rahaf al-Qunun drew international attention when she was stopped in Thailand while attempting to escape to Australia. After Thai immigration officials stopped her from continuing her journey to Australia and placed her in a Bangkok hotel, she barricaded herself in the room and pleaded on social media to the world about her predicament, stating physical and emotional abuse by her family back in Saudi Arabia. Soon, after much international attention and the much-publicized social media campaign, she was declared a refugee by the United Nations and flew to Canada where she was granted asylum.
No country for women
According to researcher Safaa Fouad Rajkhan, Saudi Arabia has an approximate population of 28.5 million and is a monarchy ruled by the Al- Saud family. The Qur’an and Sunnah (Prophet Muhammad’s teachings) are deeply embedded in its governance. The kingdom’s institutions such as the judiciary are exclusively-male. Public morality is heavily policed.
Sex segregation is strictly imposed. This restricts women’s significant participation in public life.
Despite making great strides in promoting female literacy and education in the past 50 years or so, its educational model is largely regarded as sexist as it heavily emphasizes on making girls grow up to fulfil their ‘Islamic duties’ to become a good wife and mother above all else.
Rajkhan further stressed that employment-wise, the kingdom has one of the lowest female labour participation rates in the Middle East, even though it has grown by 8.8 per cent in 2018. She says family modesty and honor hold sway and therefore women’s participation in the workforce - regarded as largely the domain of men – is thought to bring stigma to society.
Until recently, women in the kingdom were unable to vote or drive.
Perhaps the most significant barrier that women in the kingdom face is the guardianship system. Regardless of their age, each woman in the kingdom has a male guardian, who is usually either her father, husband, brother or son, whose permission she must seek to do things such as travel abroad, marry, study and sometimes, even access medical care. Some women are lucky to have understanding family members, but most are not.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report saying that the guardianship system is "the most significant impediment to realizing women's rights in the country."
Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, told Muslim World Today: “The Saudi male guardianship system is essentially derived from an ambiguous verse in the Qur’an that some scholars argue has been misinterpreted by the Saudi religious establishment.”
“Chapter 4, verse 34 of the Quran states, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.” Many Islamic scholars dispute the way in which Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment has interpreted this verse. The system has existence in different forms and iterations since the establishment of the modern Saudi state in the 1930s,” Coogle added further.
Asked what the barriers that Saudi women face in dismantling the guardian system, Coogle said: “Saudi activists trying to dismantle the guardianship system face major obstacles, including a lack of political will by the Saudi state to end its own discriminatory practices as well as to root out gender and sex discrimination by private actors in Saudi society. In addition, those who engage in independent activism in Saudi Arabia risk being harassed, jailed, and put through unfair trials by the authorities.”
The guardianship system has sparked the #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaign where nearly 15, 000 thousand of fed-up Saudi women submitted a petition to the Saudi government in September 2018, calling for the end of the system.
Saudi women trying to escape the kingdom goes back to the 1970s, when a female member of the Saudi royal family was caught with her lover while they were trying to flee the kingdom. They were charged with adultery and executed.
In the past few years, human rights groups say that there have been a rise of numbers of Saudi women who flee to the US to seek asylum, though the figures remain unknown.
According to a news article by Al-Jazeera English, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the number of asylum seekers from Saudi Arabia has tripled over the past few years: more than 800 cases since 2017, compared to less than 200 in 2012.
In 2017, CNN documented the journey of a Saudi woman - who went by the false name Arwa for the sake of security - in trying to obtain asylum status in the U.S.
Arwa was living in Houston, Texas at the time of the shoot. She had previously came to the U.S as a student and then went back to Saudi Arabia to work for a few years. One night in 2015, frustrated by the kingdom’s repression of women, Arwa snuck out from her family home, travelled to neighboring Bahrain and flew to the U.S.
Arwa did not seek a lawyer and instead relied on the advice of friends who had received asylum. She also sought information online.
"What I really want is just to live normally without fear and not have to pretend to be somebody else, that's all I ever want," Arwa told the media organization.
"What really scares me is that I wouldn't get this asylum, and I would be returned and I would die young, and that I would lose everything that I tried to build, that I would just fail."
The CNN documentary ended with a happy note: Arwa received asylum status.
Making the perilous journey with the help of social media
“Saudi women face challenges obtaining a visa, and even after they arrive to the US they face challenges finding and affording legal representation to assist them in their asylum cases. Furthermore, they often face challenges proving their asylum case if they don’t have detailed records such as threatening messages for example,” Coogle explained to Muslim World Today.
Many who flee Saudi Arabia do so via Turkey, a famous holiday spot for Saudis, and proceed to Georgia where they can enter without a visa.
Thanks to social media, Saudi women are now able to escape easier.
There are various ways that these women flee, but those who succeeded said they had planned their escape by discussing with other women – who had successfully fled or those who also intended to flee - via private chat groups.
“All these women who 15 years ago would have never been heard from can now find a way to reach out,” Coogle, told the New York Times recently.
What happens if they are caught?
Even if the women are able to flee the kingdom, their risk of being caught doesn’t end there. Their families try to force them home, and Saudi Arabia has a well-financed system, made up of local diplomats, who stress repatriation.
Once caught, the women are repatriated and receive criminal charges of “parental disobedience” or polluting the kingdom’s reputation.
“As Saudi women, we are still treated as property that belongs to the state,” Saudi feminist activist Moudi Aljohani told the New York Times recently.
Aljohani came to the U.S as a student and is now seeking asylum there. “It doesn’t matter if the woman has any political views or not. They are going to go after her and forcibly return her,” she said.
Will there be any changes?
In recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS) has promised to improve everyday life for Saudi women. He criticized the religious police who infamously harassed women who did not “dress appropriately” and recently lifted the ban on women driving. Strict laws on entertainment, for example, have been slightly relaxed.
However, there has also been an increase of clampdown on women’s rights activists -along with intellectuals and poets- whom the Crown Prince said have been arrested due to “national security concerns”.
Recently this month, 28 members of the European Union and eight other states – including Australia, Canada and Iceland - condemned the kingdom’s arrests of women’s rights defenders.
Appearing on Al-Jazeera English, Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Bessma Momani said that despite the progress in the kingdom, many citizens feel that “political commentary, free thought are frankly no longer welcomed in post-Arab Spring” and that this means that real progress is still far away.
Asylum in the US
While the U.S. has a growing reputation for being anti-immigrant under the current administration, immigration attorney Supna Zaidi said that asylum claims are still being heard.
“Cases filed since spring of 2018 are being processed quickly,” she told Muslim World Today.
With regard to the difficulty in proving their case in the US, Ms Zaidi said: “Saudi women fleeing Saudi Arabia have a strong case because the country conditions have not improved under the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Rather, the American media is more than aware of the arrests of women rights activists, their detention, and the stories of women trying to flee.”
“My most recent asylum case of a woman from Saudi Arabia was successful because her testimony was consistent, and with our advice, corroborated her story with statements from others that knew her, and medical documentation, including a psychological evaluation that confirmed the emotional trauma she endured as a result of her experiences in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Ms Zaidi added further.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.