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Saudi Tribal Customs, Not Islam, Responsible for Male Guardianship Abuses

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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-Huwaider, 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 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 a mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don't join Al-Huwaider it's because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huwaider's all or nothing position undercuts her credibility.

Of course, there are a great many women who are abused and they are seeking to change the guardianship system. And these efforts have sparked a counter-campaign by women who want the system to remain the same.

Recently a campaign called "My Guardian Knows the Best for Me" was initiated in direct response to the anti-guardianship movement. I have mixed feelings about both movements, but I must say the guardianship supporters have me more worried.

The system currently in place is seriously flawed. Saudi authorities have abdicated their responsibility to see that laws are enforced in a fair and equitable manner. It has ceased being a religious issue and is more about patriarchal control.

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 a mahram. Many women travel freely with this document and consult little with the men in their families about their movements.

But since there are no codified laws, most Saudi women traveling alone don't know from one day to the next whether their documents will pass scrutiny at the airport. And for every family that follows guardianship rules, there is another family that wields the law like a club. It's not a system ripe for abuse. It's already a system abused with regularity.

Guardianship opponents are waging a losing battle if they believe that Saudi authorities will abolish the law. The reality is that there is little incentive for the government to consider anything but maintaining the status quo.

More worrisome is the women's pro-guardianship camp that is perfectly happy for men to control their lives. That's fine for them. They undoubtedly live in households of unquestioned male authority and are pleased with the arrangement. But what about the women abused by the guardian system?

It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family's tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women's shelter.

Here is a clear instance of the Saudi judicial system failing to protect the woman and tacitly endorsing abuse of the guardianship system.

If men follow the spirit of guardianship as outlined in the Qur'an and recognize at the same time there is no place for tribal customs within the system, then a happy medium can be found. But if the Saudi courts fail to implement checks and balances to punish guardianship abusers and to protect the victims, then the laws are pointless.

Tribal customs should not usurp Sharia. Yet, to listen to the pro-guardianship camp, Saudi customs and traditions should indeed be a central part of the system. In effect, they are placing customs and traditions above Islam.

By waging a campaign fully supporting existing guardianship rules dooms thousands of Saudi women to being housebound servants to male family members.

A campaign to encourage guardianship, but also to demand that codified laws protect the abused, makes more sense. Such a system respects an independent woman's right to move about, attend university and marry whomever she pleases. It allows the family to determine a comfort level, but also imposes consequences on guardians who manipulate the laws to their own advantage.

The argument that women are not competent to handle their own affairs is not valid and never has been. More Saudi women than men attend universities in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Most of the money held in banks belongs to women.

How guardianship laws are followed must be a joint decision involving the family. But Saudi judges also need to summon the courage to cast aside customs and traditions when faced with abuse cases and make the right call to protect victims.