With new urgency, Saudi and other GCC women call for widespread social change
“They made us go psycho. May they all never be normal. May they all get possessed.”
The kitschy, cheery Arabic song lyrics, drawn from two traditional limericks, rail against the patriarchy and oppressive gender-based rules in the Kingdom.
In the last two weeks, the goofy but deeply feminist music video made in Saudi Arabia has stirred great controversy while drumming up support behind an increasingly loud rallying cry.
With over 2.5 million YouTube views, “Hwages” -- which translates to “concerns” -- has stoked the flames of an acrimonious debate, with scenes of the three featured women doing forbidden activities: playing basketball and skateboarding. The women are also wearing bright colors underneath black abayas.
Hardliners have criticized the anthem for undercutting morality and propriety. The song also satirized the ban on women driving, a prohibition that provoked mass protests in 2013. Saudi Arabia may be the only country that forbids women from going behind the wheel, but the issue is much larger than cars.
Rights for women
The bigger issue at stake is male guardianship of women, which in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia covers everything from work and school to travel and marriage. Exiting prison and accessing healthcare also require approval. A woman’s father, brother, or husband must give written permission for her to take part in all these activities. Moreover, clothing and gender-mixing are also closely regulated.
The Saudi government has twice agreed to dispose of guardianship laws but never followed through on the promise.
A man was recently sentenced to one year in prison for leading the online campaign to put an end to the system that subjects all women to wide-ranging controls. He also had put up posters in a number of mosques in the east of the country, as “female relatives were facing injustice at the hands of their families.”
In September, the man was behind a Twitter drive that obtained over 14,000 signatures submitted to the king, calling for an end to the entire guardianship system.
In addition to the hashtag #SaudiWomenDemandTheEndOfGuardianship, there are a few others that have often been included: #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, #IAmMyOwnGuardian, and Arabic hashtags that translate to “the niqab is not from Islam” and “if only I was not a Saudi woman.”
One of the tweets posted in November with the Arabic anti-guardianship hashtag said: “Be optimistic for good things happening at the beginning of 2017. It will be the year of the advancement of Saudi women, they will drive cars and male guardianship will fall. It will be a deplorable year for the bearded people.”
Opposition to the campaign has focused on the religious view that men are the protectors of women, calls for guardianship critics to leave the country, and frequent assertions that guardianship will remain intact regardless. Senior clerics mostly want to keep the system, even though many members of the royal family would be happy to see it abolished.
The movement was jumpstarted in July following a Human Rights Watch report detailing guardianship as “the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country.”
But Saudi Arabia is not the only Gulf Cooperation Council nation where male guardians retain such power over women. While not nearly as strict, Qatar similarly requires a guardian’s permission for a woman to enter into a marriage contract -- thereby preventing her from freely choosing her spouse.
One ambitious young Qatari woman has been unable to get her marriage approved, or get a driver’s license without her father’s signature.
“I’m in the nightmare scenario. We wrote down all the possible outcomes in spring 2016 and this is the worst,” said Asma, a Qatari national who went to graduate school in the U.S. prior to moving back home.
“Being married and living in [the capital] Doha can’t happen without my dad’s permission,” said Asma, who’s engaged to an American.
“I’m in the middle of two countries where having a married life with [my future husband] could be very challenging,” she added, referring to possible difficulties for immigrant Muslims to the U.S. during the Trump administration. “If he bans immigration from Qatar, then yeah, I can’t move to the U.S. either.”
Asma, who asked that her real name not be used due to her ongoing guardianship problems, also said that her fiancé met the legal requirements for marrying a Qatari woman, but her father still would not approve.
“He should be Muslim, he should have good reputation and manners, he should be financially able to establish a life with the woman,” said Asma, before explaining that her family was simply resistant to her desire to marry an American — though he’d converted to Islam already.
In certain cases, a woman petitioner can go to court to seek removal of familial guardianship. If successful the state effectively becomes her guardian, and a judge would need to approve her marriage. Either way, marrying a foreigner requires Ministry of Interior approval.
Of course, the struggle for Qatari women to marry whomever they want is not limited to concerns over the nationality or race of the man. Tribe, class, and social status are often the reasons why guardians don’t approve. And for the daring women, there’s tremendous social stigma attached to bucking traditional norms.
Obviously, most women raising their voice do not actually want to erase men from their lives, as certain song lyrics might suggest. But they do want men to respect their right to make key choices.
For the millions of women in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries whose dreams are shattered by male guardians’ disapproval of their life course, one can only hope that changes soon come to tradition-bound laws. Yet at least many of the women have college educations and generous welfare states to fall back on, if their ambitions are significantly constrained.
“It could always be worse, considering the circumstances,” said Asma.