By: Y. Admon* MEMRI
Recently, Saudi women activists, led by Saudi Princess Jawaher bint Jalawi, launched a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me,” calling for redefining the term “guardian” and for opposing calls by those with liberal views to improve the status of women in Saudi Arabia.
Princess Jawaher’s campaign is a response to the struggle launched in July 2009 by Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar calling for abolishing theÂ mahram (“guardian”) law, which requires women to obtain the approval of a male relative for nearly any move they make in their lives. As part of her campaign, Al-Huweidar, together with her colleagues, went to the King Fahd Bridge, which joins Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and demanded to leave the country without a guardian’s approval.
Columnists who weighed in on the issue of the campaigns stated that Princess Jawaher’s campaign harmed women’s status by increasing men’s sovereignty over them and eradicating their selves. Op-eds on Al-Huweidar’s campaign appeared in both the Saudi press and in the U.S. and U.K. press.
Following are excerpts from various responses on this issue:
Al-Huweidar Calls to AbolishÂ Mahram Law
In July 2009, liberal Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar, together with other Saudi women’s rights activists, launched a campaign to abolish Saudi Arabia’sÂ mahram law, which requires women to obtain the approval of a male relative â€“ husband, father, brother, or son â€“ for nearly any move they make in their lives, and especially for moving about freely. Al-Huweidar called the campaign “Treat Us Like Adult Citizens â€“ Or We’ll Leave the Country”; she told the Kuwaiti daily Awan in an interview that her struggle was a continuation of her previous fight, called “No to Oppression of Women.” She added that she had launched the campaign at the King Fahd Bridge, and that she intended to come to the bridge, as well as to the airport in the city of Al-Damam, every Thursday and Friday to demand that theÂ mahram law be abolished, until such time as she would be allowed to travel without a guardian’s permission.(1)
It should be noted that Saudi Justice Ministry advisor and Shura Council member Sheikh ‘Abd Al-Mohsen Al-Obikan has already issued a fatwa permitting women to travel abroad without a chaperone.(2)
On September 20, 2009, Al-Huweidar published an announcement on the liberal website Middle East Transparent (metransparent.com), headlined “Saudi Women Need Your Voices.” In it, she called on all Saudi citizens to make their voices heard on September 23, Saudi Arabia’s National Day, to demand that Saudi women be freed from the mahram law. She wrote: “The 23rd of September is the Saudi National Day. Please speak up for the freedoms of Saudi women, send letters, fax or email messages to the Saudi Embassy in your country. Say loudly and clearly, ‘Stop the Male Guardianship System Now, Let Saudi Women Be in Charge of Their Lives.'”(3)
Saudi Women Activists: “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me”
In response to Al-Huweidar’s current campaign to abolish theÂ mahram law, 12 Saudi women activists, headed by Saudi Princess Jawaher bint Jalawi, launched a counter-campaign on KSA-wa.net, called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me.” The campaign organizers aim to collect signatures from 1,000 Saudi women on a petition to be sent to Saudi King ‘Abdallah bin Abd Al-‘Aziz. The petition vehemently opposes the demand to abolish theÂ mahram law in the country, along with “all the other calls by liberals that will lead to the Westernization of Islam’s principles.”
The activists supporting theÂ mahram law said that there are those who misinterpret the concept of “guardian” to mean that men have control over women, and that they would act to rectify the definition of the concept in Saudi society and to disseminate the amended concept in schools, mosques, and the media. They also stated that they aimed “to punish anyone who harms the reputation of Saudi women and misleads public opinion via conspiratorial calls.”
These activists also said that they had demanded that officials take a civilized view of the guardian’s role, so as to enable women to actualize their rights. They also asked for the setting of guidelines to protect Islamic values in family relations, and to prevent women from being treated arbitrarily by their guardians â€“ which was liable to happen due to the authority given them by Islamic law.(4)
Saudi activist Fawzia Al-‘Ayouni said that the princess’s campaign had been organized by unknown women as “a joke, part of a dispute between two activists who wanted to make fun of each other.” She added that this campaign detracted from women’s freedom, and also contradicted the rights granted to her by Islam â€“ and thus also contradicted human rights charters.(5)
Saudi Journalist: Al-Huweidar’s Campaign is Pointless
Saudi journalist Sabria Jawhar, director of the Jeddah office of the English-language Saudi dailyÂ Saudi Gazette, called Al-Huweidar’s call to abolish theÂ mahram law “silly” and pointless because it was against Islamic law and because the Saudi authorities would never agree to it. In an op-ed posted by the U.S. online journal Huffington Post, Jawhar wrote:
“A battle is brewing among Saudi women over the touchy issue of male guardianship. Pressure from outside Saudi Arabia has been building to abolish guardianship laws, and a number of women who fashion themselves as activists have led the charge.
“Perhaps the most visible is Wajeha Al-Huweidar, a Saudi who does a little showboating by being driven in a taxi to the border checkpoint to enter Bahrain without permission from a male guardian. She’s always turned away by Saudi authorities and told to go home. She is the darling of Western conservatives who think this public demonstration will further the cause of Saudi women.
“It’s silly. Public acts of defiance are unseemly in Saudi society and few women want to give up their dignity when letter-writing and petition campaigns are more effective.
“Additionally, advocating to completely abolish the guardianship rules is not a productive means to deal with abuses in the system. The problem with some Saudi activists is that they want to make wholesale changes that are contrary to Islam, which requires aÂ mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don’t join Al-Huweidar, it’s because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huweidar’s all-or-nothing position undercuts her credibility.”(6)
In response to Jawhar’s article, Saudi journalist Nasreen Malik stated that Princess Jawaher’s campaign means women relinquishing their right to manage their own affairs. In an article in the U.K. dailyÂ The Guardian, she wrote:
“As Sabria Jawhar says, “Many families treat their wives, daughters and sisters with great respect and don’t follow their every move. Permission to travel or to conduct business abroad is often granted carte blanche with a signed piece of paper from amahram. Many women travel freely with this document and consult little with the men in their families about their movements.
“But what this legal dimension does in other cases is ensure that despotic guardians have an iron grip, leaving little leeway for their women to flee, travel or challenge their guardianship. Abolition of the guardianship system (in itself an improbable event) is unlikely to result in hordes of women running amok in the streets and airports of Riyadh â€“ so what is it that prompts other women to entreat the authorities not to do away with a way of life that is not immediately under threat?
“I do not believe it is anything as clichÃ©d as Stockholm syndrome, or even a sincere commitment to what they believe are religious values. Even under subjugation, women have power, mostly over other women, and that power is drawn from their hard-earned position in the established hierarchy…
“It is true that public demonstrations of opposition to the wali system [i.e. theÂ mahram requirement] may alienate popular opinion and rally support only from abroad, but launching such a counter-campaign reeks of distasteful one-upmanship of its own. The agenda is to discredit any women who call for more freedom in Saudi as agents of external liberal forces before any of their efforts or values become remotely mainstream.
“Nobody is stopping women from deferring to their guardians’ authority in their private lives, but insisting that this authority applies across the board shows a shocking disregard for other women not privileged enough to have guardians who ‘know what’s best for them.'(7)
Criticism of Princess Jawaher’s Campaign in the Saudi Press
One Saudi woman columnist criticized Princess Jawaher’s campaign by saying that its leaders were puppets on their guardians’ strings. A male columnist protested against the injustice done to women by the media, which harmed their image, and claimed that women must oppose the campaign and must believe in their own abilities, while another woman writer insisted that the campaign was really initiated by a man who himself needed a guardian, and that it harmed women’s honor and increased male dominance over women.
Nabila Husseini Mahjoub: The Women Behind the Princess’s Campaign Are Puppets on a String
Nabila Husseini Mahjoub wrote in her column in the Saudi dailyÂ Al-Madina that Princess Jawaher’s campaign was a reflection of women’s dependence on their guardians. She stated: “I favor the first campaign [i.e. that of Wajeha Al-Huweidar]… I believe in the principle of freedom that is destroyed by the ‘My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me’ campaign. I don’t believe in the idea of this campaign, or in the person who launched it…
“Perhaps [the leader of this campaign], who had the idea, has no belief in her own capabilities, and is not aware of her human value or of her social, educational, and occupational status â€“ and thus she [does not] know what is best for her.
“We shouldn’t be angry at this campaign or at others like it, which [somehow] see restrictions on women to be [an expression] of their freedom… [The fight against us] is proof of the scope of the problem, and reveals the real repression that it conceals.
“Behind this campaign is [a woman’s] guardian â€“ a guardian who sees her liberation as a danger that threatens him… [Her guardian] is… the hidden finger, or the hand holding the marionette.”(8)
Sultan Al-Jumeiri: The Campaign Harms Women’s Honor
Saudi journalist Sultan Al-Jumeiri wrote that the princess’s campaign harmed women’s honor and that subordinating women to men had no religious basis at all. He wrote in the Saudi online magazineÂ Royaah: “The [campaign’s very] headline is an insult to women, and [ostensibly] transfers her wisdom to men â€“ because a woman herself knows what is good for her and knows herself better than anyone else does. [While] she is helped by men â€“ her husband, a cleric, a ruler â€“ she [still] does not refrain from acting and thinking, and she fearlessly demands that her needs be met…
“[This campaign’s] slogan gives the man greater tyranny and greater control, and greater humiliation and greater disregard [for the woman], and expresses a view [of women] as inferior… because of customs from the Jahiliya [i.e. the pre-Islamic period] which some consider to be ‘religion.’ How can the term [‘guardian’] be given to a cheating husband, a drug dealer, aÂ misyarhusband(9) or a ‘summer husband[?]'(10)…
“[The campaign’s slogan] is illegitimate and illogical â€“ it is a catastrophe, and the greatest catastrophe is that women themselves fall victim to this idea, and justify the myth of [their own inferiority] and become enthusiastic about it. Even if [the term] ‘guardian’ in this slogan refers to the ruler, Allah did not create woman so that man should speak in her name…
“Men no longer customarily bury their daughters [alive] as they did during the Jahiliya.(11) But some among us have buried women’s emotional and psychological needs… [as well as] affection and attention [to them]. The ill treatment of women is [not limited] to any one trend or party. It exists in all streams â€“ Islamic, liberal, and secular. How women are treated is the result of upbringing in the home and of the culture of an entire society, a combination of customs handed down [from generation to generation].
“Religion has nothing to do with these problems. After all, we are calling for giving women their rights [as set down by the religion] â€“ not for returning to the Saudi [traditional] model or to the Saudi interpretation [of religious precepts]. We want to return to the model of the first purely Islamic generation, to the days when women could express their views clearly without being chastised, and could correct a man’s mistakes no matter what his status…
“Understanding and correcting our [i.e. Saudi society’s] behavior does not mean relinquishing our principles as Muslims. Our main problem is that we give a religious dimension to our wrong behaviors and deviant customs…
“I wish that those dear sisters [behind the princess’s campaign] would stand with the poverty-stricken women, the humiliated divorced women, the unemployed women, and the spinsters; with the teachers who sacrifice themselves on dirt roads in far-flung villages; with the schoolgirls studying in huts and in ramshackle buildings… with the women [visiting relatives] in the government hospitals who are ill-treated, [or] with the women [who have no guardian because] their children and spouses weep in the darkness of prison, and their hearts are consumed by torment and trouble, broken by want and isolation.
“If only these women [behind the campaign] would say: My guardian is destroying my life!”(12)
Kholoud Al-Fahd: The Campaign Was Initiated by a Man; The Media Distorts the Image of Women
In her piece on sawomenvoice.com, Kholoud Al-Fahd wrote: “The ‘My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me’ campaign was initiated by a man who was perhaps talking about himself, and who needs his own guardian, since it was recently discovered that it is men [rather than women] who have no qualifications.
“[Perhaps this man is also] demanding guardianship over women â€“ whom he still treats as unqualified and as incapable of understanding their own affairs and of making their own decisions. If [this man’s] aim were [truly] to protect defenseless women, then who is supposed to protect divorced women, widows, battered wives, and orphans who need shelter?…
“Who gave just anyone who wants media exposure and false publicity the right to trade in the affairs of Saudi women, and to speak for them about their nature, capabilities, and souls?… Today’s Saudi woman is a businesswoman, an author, an intellectual, a media critic, a doctor, an engineer, a deputy minister, an actress, a singer, a teacher, and a researcher with a professorship. Nevertheless, she is still excluded, against her will, from every real official organization…
“At the same time, the media, writers, and a few government apparatuses labor [ceaselessly] to distort the image of the Saudi woman. Highlighting examples that embarrass any educated and respectable Muslim woman is presenting an unfair picture of Saudi women to the public. By doing so, it appears that [the media] are trying to convey a hidden message to the world and to society â€“ men and women alike â€“ and also to the government: The Saudi woman is untrustworthy and is a human creature motivated primarily by corruption and dubious urges. This view of [women] is more deeply rooted regarding us [i.e. Saudi women] than it is regarding all other women in the world…
“Every intelligent and well-versed Saudi woman must know her rights and her value, and must believe that the Saudi government is trying to change the situation of women in a way that is compatible with our religion and our values. [The Saudi government is doing this] by pressuring public opinion, and by absolute opposition to dubious calls that try to climb on our shoulders and trade in our affairs for personal aims.
“The Saudi woman must realize that she is an independent human being capable of acting responsibly towards herself, her society, and her religion. And I am the one who knows what’s best for me!”(13)
*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.