In Riyadh, the college day begins for female students behind a locked door that will remain that way until male guardians come to collect them. Later, in a female-run business, everyone must vacate the premises so a delivery man can drop off a package. In Jeddah, a 40-year-old divorced woman cannot board a plane without the written permission of her 23-year-old son. Elsewhere, a female doctor cannot leave the house at all as her male driver fails to turn up for work. These scenes make up the daily reality for half of the Saudi Kingdom, the only country where women legally belong to men.
After more than a decade of lobbying, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has finally been granted access to Saudi Arabia, where it has uncovered a disturbing picture of women forced to live as children, denied basic rights and confined to a suffocating dependency on men.
Wajeha al-Huwaider, a critic of Saudi’s guardian laws that force women to seek male permission for almost all aspects of their lives, is one of a growing number demanding change. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t do anything; I am utterly reliant on other people, completely dependent. If you are dependent on another person, you’ve got nothing. That is how the men like it. They don’t want us to be equals.”
The House of Saud, in alliance with an extremist religious establishment which enforces the most restrictive interpretation of sharia, Islamic law, has created a legal system that treats women as minors unable to exercise authority over even trivial daily matters.
The most egregious consequences of this repressive regime occasionally filter out from the Gulf Kingdom: the notorious case in Qatif of the girl who was jailed after being gang raped on a charge of consorting with a male non-relative; the schoolgirls believed to have burnt to death in Mecca as religious police would not let them leave the fiery premises without headscarves; or the happily married Fatima Azzaz from Mansour, forced to divorce her husband at the whim of her half-brothers.
Beyond these high-profile cases is a demoralising and sometimes ridiculous reality in which women cannot open bank accounts for their children, take them to the dentist or even on a field trip without the written permission of the father.
Petty humiliations are endemic. Two women who spoke to HRW said, in a report released today, that judges had refused them the right to speak in court as their voices were “shameful” – only their guardians were allowed to speak on their behalf. Saudi courts require a mu’arif (a male to identify her under the full face veil) before a woman can even attempt to testify.
“The Saudi government sacrifices human rights to maintain male control over women,” said Farida Deif from HRW. “Saudi women won’t make progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies.”
The oil-rich kingdom lies at the bottom of the UN rankings on female empowerment and women make up only 4 per cent of the workforce.
The frustrations of Dr M are typical of those faced even by educated women:
“When I take my daughter to the doctor’s, they ask me where my husband is, and refuse to do anything until he comes to authorise it. Even if it is something small like an ear infection.”
Another woman who, despite the legal barriers, owns her own business, describes the farcical difficulties she faces: “Only women can enter my premises. If a delivery man needs to drop something off we have to exit the premises first. It is ridiculous.”
Trumpeted reforms from King Abdullah have had little impact on women’s lives. Too often, sex segregation results in an “apartheid” system in which facilities for women are either grossly inferior or non-existent. Women were denied the right to vote in the kingdom’s first municipal elections because there were no separate voting booths for them.
Even progress that is achieved often serves to underline the fundamental problem – that of legal guardianship of men over women. In the words of one Saudi woman: “We still need to get a male guardian – husband, father or brother – to sign a form saying where we are allowed to work and when. It is like we are their property.”