Credit: Ikhlasul Amal on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)-- Khuloud Saleh Alfahad runs her own real estate business in the eastern Saudi city of Al Khobar.
But because of male guardianship laws requiring women to have a male escort and consent in almost all aspects of life, she says she feels like a non-person. "I don't have any identity here in Saudi Arabia," she said in a Skype interview. Every woman, even the most conservative, would be happy to see an end to male guardianship, she added. "I want to feel like I am a Saudi citizen, now I just feel like I am a follower of a man."
Alfahad is a Saudi activist who is encouraging women to stand up and speak for themselves. She sympathizes with a petition recently delivered to the 150-member Saudi Shura Council--the formal advisory body of the kingdom--calling for an end of the "absolute male guardianship" over women.
Aziza El-Yousef, one of the authors of the petition, said in a recent Skype interview that the text was sent to 50 members--30 women and 20 men--of the 150-person council. El-Yousef said the only response so far has come from two female members of the Saudi Shura Council, who said in an email that the petition was being transferred to the committee of human rights. "Saudi women cannot get their own official documents such as their passports or birth certificate for their children," said El-Yousef, a mother of five children. "They cannot travel without the authorization of a male guardian, cannot go to work or school without a male approval."
Although press reports have said that the petition is signed by 10 women, El-Yousef said in fact it is signed by 25 women.
Pushing for Other Changes
In addition to seeking the abolition of male guardianship, the petition asks also for changes in the family law in regards to the custody of children and the right of divorce.
Saudi Arabia imposes a strict interpretation of Islamic law, but El-Yousef said all the restrictions imposed on women are "not part of Islam."
The petition also calls for an end of the notorious female driving ban. El-Yousef has been driving in defiance of the ban since 2011. She was arrested in January and detained for four hours at the police station until her husband came and signed her out. Although she was required to sign an agreement not to drive, El-Yousef said she continues to drive in the streets of Riyadh, where she lives.
Three female members of the Shura Council presented a recommendation that women be given the right to drive in October, but the male-dominated assembly blocked the proposal, the Associated Press reported.
The Shura Council is appointed by the king and advises the monarch on policy, but cannot legislate.
Alfahad, the real estate executive in Al Khobar, talks of a "revolution" when asked to comment on the women's movement in Saudi Arabia. "I think there is a revolution now from many women who are not necessarily activists. I am happy with what's happening now and I also have hopes, very strong hopes."
'Mini Revolution' in Families
Alfahad said a "mini revolution" is also taking place inside families. "Even inside some families, girls are being encouraged to ask for their rights."
She sees more and more women behind the wheel in her town as more women take new jobs in the wake of changes in the monarchy that, for instance, allow women to work as sellers and lawyers.
Alfahad criticizes what she calls the "legal violence" institutionalized through the laws in Saudi Arabia.
"This is a violence that doesn't come from my family or the society, it comes from our laws here against women," she said.
Those who support the system of guardianship say it protects women but Alfahad rejects that. "It's to put a woman in a jail so she cannot do anything without a man."
Recently, two cases exposing the dangers to women of the guardianship system made headlines. In February, a female university student died when a crew of male paramedics was prevented from entering her campus by the kingdom's strict rules on sex segregation. More recently, a pregnant student had to give birth on campus after a women-only university in Riyadh denied access to paramedics.
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.
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