Saudi anti male-guardianship campaign

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The anti male-guardianship campaign is an ongoing campaign by Saudi women against the requirement to obtain permission from their male guardian for activities such as getting a job, travelling internationally or getting married.[1] Wajeha al-Huwaider deliberately tried to travel internationally without male guardianship permission in 2009 and encouraged other women to do likewise.[2] Women activists wrote a letter to the Saudi Minister of Labor and brought media attention to the issue in 2011.[3] A 14,000-signature petition was given to royal authorities by Aziza al-Yousef in 2016 following a Human Rights Watch report on male guardianship.[1] A crackdown against the activists took place in mid-May 2018, with 13 arrests as of 22 May 2018.[4][5] Several of the women remained in prison as of December 2018.[6] Some of the women activists were tortured, including supervision by Saud al-Qahtani, a close advisor of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman[6]


Women in the pre-Roman Arabian kingdom of Nabataea[7] were independent legal persons able to sign contracts in their own name.[8] Roman law gave less rights to women than they had when Nabataea was independent. The restrictions on women in Roman law were inserted into Islamic law.[8] In the late twentieth century, after the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979, King Khalid gave more power to religious groups.[9] In 2016, Human Rights Watch described the male guardianship situation in Saudi Arabia, stating that a Saudi woman's life "is controlled by a man from birth until death".[10] As of 2018, any adult woman in Saudi Arabia is required to obtain approval from her male guardian for activities such as accessing healthcare, getting a job, travelling or getting married.[1]

Unauthorised travel protest (2006)[edit]

Wajeha al-Huwaider is a Saudi women's rights activist who in 2003 was banned by Saudi authorities from publishing her opinions in Saudi media and was arrested again after holding a women's rights street protest in August 2006.[11] In June 2009, she protested against male guardianship by trying three times to enter Bahrain without permission from her male guardian.[2] She was refused departure from Saudi Arabia at the Bahraini border all three times because of her lack of male-guardian authorisation.[2]

Al-Huwaider encouraged other Saudi women to carry out the same attempted border crossings without male guardian approval, with the aim of ending the male guardianship system.[2]

Appeal to Ministry of Labor (2011)[edit]

Late in 2011, during the 2011–12 Saudi Arabian protests, Saudi women started a campaign against the Saudi Ministry of Labor requirement for guardian approval for employment. The group contacted the media and argued that women's equality is established in the eighth article of the Saudi Arabian constitution, and that Islamic scholars generally do not see male guardian approval as a requirement for a women to be employed.[12][3]

The group held workshops on the issue and studied Islamic religious arguments[13][14] in relation to male guardianship.[1]

Petition to King and wave of activism (2016)[edit]

In July 2016, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report on male guardianship in Saudi Arabia.[10] The report brought attention to the topic, and Twitter hashtags #IAmMyOwnGuardian and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen[15] became popular. Several months later, in September 2016, 2500 women sent telegrams to King Salman, and fourteen thousand people, including Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, signed a petition, calling for the male guardianship system to be fully abolished.[1][16] Al-Yousef went to the royal court to deliver the petition. Human Rights Watch described the 2016 wave of activism against male guardianship as "incredible and unprecedented".[15]

2018 crackdown[edit]

Noha al-Balawi was detained in January 2018, the first in a 2018 wave of arrests of women's right activists involved in the women to drive movement and the anti male-guardianship campaign.[17] She was questioned during her detention about her women's rights activities.[18] In mid-May 2018, all three of Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, together with Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush and two male activists, were arrested by Saudi authorities. As of 22 May 2018, more anti male-guardianship campaigners had been arrested, bringing the total to 13.[4] As of 25 May 2018, four of the women had been released.[19] Hatoon al-Fassi, a women's rights activist and an associate professor of women's history, was arrested around 27 June 2018, not long after she had driven a car following the official lifting of the women's driving ban.[20]

Human Rights Watch interpreted the arrests as being aimed at frightening the activists, stating, "The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince's [human] rights agenda faces time in jail."[16] The arrested campaigners were severely criticised in semi-official media as "traitors".[4] Social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed interpreted the May arrests as being part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's aim to keep all the credit for allowing women to drive starting from 24 June 2018.[5] Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch said that since the arrests and the public smearing of the activists' reputations, women's Twitter activity was quiet.[19] As of 27 June 2018, Al Jazeera English stated that nine of the activists, out of a total of 17, remained under arrest without contact with their families or lawyers.[20] ALQST described the series of arrests as "unprecedented targeting of women human rights defenders".[17] In June 2018, United Nations special rapporteurs described the detentions and arrests taking place as a "crackdown" taking place "on a wide scale across" Saudi Arabia and called for the "urgent release" of the detainees.[21]

The wave of political arrests in 2018 extended beyond women's rights groups to other individuals making political statements against Mohammad bin Salman's policies. Economist Essam al-Zamil was charged with terrorism as a result of questioning plans involving the national oil company. Political prisoners were held without trial, and public figures, such as Salman al-Awdah, were "wanted dead", according to The Economist.[22]

Samar Badawi, al-Yousef, al-Nafjan, al-Hathloul, Shadan al-Onezi and Nouf al-Dosari were tortured during the detention, with Crown Prince advisor Saud al-Qahtani present at some of the torture sessions.[6] Physical torture techniques included beating the women on their feet, giving them electric shocks and whipping them. The torture location was referred to as "the hotel" or "the officer's guesthouse". One of the women was photographed naked, one was sexually harrassed, beaten and groped, one was stripped naked in front of interrogators. Several had black eyes, suffered from trembling, and were unable to walk or stand normally. One was told falsely that a family member had died. Testimony of torture was obtained independently by ALQST, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.[23][24]

On 2 January 2019, a group of UK members of parliament and international lawyers requested permission to visit the women detainees.[23] However, there was no response from the Saudi ambassador Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz. The UK panel that included former Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee Crispin Blunt concluded that the female detainees had been subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, including assault, threats to life and solitary confinement.[25]

On 14 May 2019, one year after the women human rights activists were arrested by the Saudi authorities, Amnesty International criticised Saudi Arabia's western allies, including the US, the UK and France for not doing anything for the "immediate and unconditional release" of the activists.[26]

2019 online campaign[edit]

In early January 2019, Rahaf Mohammed sought her right of asylum while transiting Bangkok airport, on the basis of what she stated was physical and psychological abuse by her family.[27] Her situation gained wide international media attention and support from online social networks, saving her from being deported according to ESOHR-appointed lawyer François Zimeray.[28] Following the international online campaign Canadian authorities offered her asylum after she was given refugee status by the UNHCR.[29] Anger against the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi constituting a triggering factor in the online support according to Thomson Reuters. The online reaction included a Twitter revival of the anti male-guardianship campaign, with the trending slogan, "Remove guardianship and we won't all migrate".[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Thousands of Saudis sign petition to end male guardianship of women". The Guardian. 26 September 2016. Archived from the original on 21 May 2018. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Jamjoom, Mohammed; Escobedo, Tricia (10 July 2009). "Saudi woman activist demands right to travel". CNN. Archived from the original on 26 May 2018. Retrieved 15 February 2009.
  3. ^ a b Hawari, Walaa (14 November 2011). "Women intensify campaign against legal guardian". Arab News. Archived from the original on 25 January 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  4. ^ a b c McKernan, Bethan (23 May 2018). "Saudi police arrest three more women's rights activists". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 23 May 2018. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  5. ^ a b Dadouch, Sarah (22 May 2018). "Saudi Arabia expands crackdown on women's rights activists". CompuServe/Thomson Reuters. Archived from the original on 22 May 2018. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Reuters (7 December 2018). "Aide to Mohammed bin Salman 'supervised torture of female prisoner'". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 10 December 2018.
  7. ^ al-Fassi, Hatoon (15 July 2007). Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea. British Archaeological Reports International Series. British Archaeological Reports. p. 129. ISBN 978-1-4073-0095-5.
  8. ^ a b Hammond, Andrew; Sara Ledwith (30 April 2008). "Saudi scholar finds ancient women's rights". Thomson Reuters. Archived from the original on 29 May 2011. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
  9. ^ Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. p. 48. Those old men actually believed that the Mosque disaster was God's punishment to us because we were publishing women's photographs in the newspapers, says a princess, one of Khaled's nieces. The worrying thing is that the king [Khaled] probably believed that as well ... Khaled had come to agree with the sheikhs. Foreign influences and bida'a were the problem. The solution to the religious upheaval was simple--more religion.
  10. ^ a b "Boxed In — Women and Saudi Arabia's Male Guardianship System". Human Rights Watch. 16 July 2016. Archived from the original on 26 August 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  11. ^ Dankowitz, Aluma (28 December 2006). "Saudi Writer and Journalist Wajeha Al-Huwaider Fights for Women's Rights". Middle East Media Research Institute. Archived from the original on 26 May 2018. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  12. ^ Ghanem, Sharifa (17 January 2012). "Saudi women battle male guardianship laws, push for rights". Bikya Masr. Archived from the original on 25 January 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  13. ^ al-Munajjid, Muhammad Saalih (General Supervisor) (25 November 2006). "She married without her wali's consent and the marriage contract was done without her being present –". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  14. ^ The Hanafi School and the issue of Wali
  15. ^ a b Ensor, Josie (26 September 2016). "Saudis file first-ever petition to end male guardianship". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 26 September 2016. Retrieved 13 October 2016.
  16. ^ a b "Saudi Arabia: Women's Rights Advocates Arrested — Jumping Ahead of Crown Prince's Reforms Risks Jail Time". Human Rights Watch. 18 May 2018. Archived from the original on 19 May 2018. Retrieved 19 May 2018.
  17. ^ a b "Alqst and Over 160 groups call for accountability following murder of journalist and widespread arrest of women's rights defenders". ALQST. 26 October 2018. Archived from the original on 28 October 2018. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  18. ^ Dadouch, Sarah; Paul, Katie; Oziel, Clelia (10 February 2018). "Long Robes Not Necessary Attire for Saudi Women: Senior Cleric". US News. Archived from the original on 28 October 2018. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  19. ^ a b Turner, Karen (25 May 2018). "Women who fought to lift the women's driving ban in Saudi Arabia are getting arrested". Vox. Archived from the original on 26 May 2018. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  20. ^ a b "Saudis arrest another women's right activist". Al Jazeera English. 27 June 2018. Archived from the original on 27 June 2018. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  21. ^ "Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown, say UN experts". Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 27 June 2018. Archived from the original on 28 October 2018. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  22. ^ "Repression in Saudi Arabia has reached a new level". The Economist. Retrieved 10 October 2018.
  23. ^ a b "ALQST Confirms New Details of Torture of Saudi Women Activists as British MPs Seek Access to Prisons to Investigate". ALQST. 3 January 2019. Archived from the original on 12 January 2019. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
  24. ^ "Saudi Arabia: Reports of torture and sexual harassment of detained activists". Amnesty International. Archived from the original on 12 January 2019. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  25. ^ "Saudi female activists face jail conditions akin to torture, say UK MPs". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  26. ^ "Saudi Arabia's 'year of shame': Crackdown on critics and rights' activists continues". Amnesty International. Retrieved 14 May 2019.
  27. ^ Fullerton, Jamie; Davidson, Helen (7 January 2019). "'He wants to kill her': friend confirms fears of Saudi woman held in Bangkok". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 10 January 2019. Retrieved 7 January 2019.
  28. ^ Moine, Anais (12 January 2019). "Tout juste reconnue réfugiée, Rahaf Mohammed témoigne de son bonheur" [Just after receiving asylum, Rahaf Mohammed describes her happiness] (in French). Aufeminin. Archived from the original on 12 January 2019. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
  29. ^ "UNHCR statement on Canada's resettlement of Saudi national Rahaf Al-Qunun". Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  30. ^ Kalin, Stephen (10 January 2019). "Saudi woman's flight rallies opposition to male guardianship". Thomson Reuters. Archived from the original on 10 January 2019. Retrieved 10 January 2019.