Monday, November 29, 2010

Saudi Arabia: The Practice of Male Guardianship

It's practically a case of Cinderella, with a few twists and no happy ending in sight. An unnamed 42 year-old woman in Saudi Arabia is bringing a lawsuit against her father for refusing all marriage proposals on her behalf. Why would he do this? Because the woman in question happens to be a surgeon, and as long as she is unmarried, he receives her paychecks.

The practice is known as "Adhl", under which unmarried females are essentially the property of their fathers. Wajeha al-Hawaidar, a women's rights advocate in Saudi Arabia, describes it as a form of slavery. "A Saudi woman can't even buy a phone without the guardian's permission" she said. She has subsequently been banned from writing or appearing on television.

Ironically, this growing outrage coincides with the fact that Saudi Arabia has been given a seat on the governing board of the United Nation's Women's Rights Council.

Contrary to the state's assertions that this practice is rare, there are a staggering number of cases coming to light. In 2008, Samar Badawi fled her father's house and petitioned the courts to strip him of her guardianship. After waiting two years for the verdict, it arrived: she was sentenced to a six month prison term for being disobedient to her father. A woman going by the name of "Amal Saleh", was threatened with "death and torture" when she insisted she be allowed to marry before she turned 30. She is now 37 and still unmarried.

Complicating the situation further for victims of Adhl, is the cultural notion that women over the age of 20 are unfit to be married; thus limiting the number and quality of potential suitors as the months and years go by. On top of this, Saudi public school curriculum provides instruction to boys on how to perform their guardianship duties. These instructions include limitations on beating disobedient women to avoid "popping the eye, breaking an arm, or leaving visible marks". Page 212 of the "Prophet Sayings" 11th Grade Textbook reads: "Be jealous, beat her hands, protect her, and achieve superiority over her".

The surgeon currently lives in a "protection house" and is escorted by guards out of fear of retaliation. Next month, she turns 43.