Will Changes in the Saudi Male Guardianship System Really Make a Difference?
There are still women activists being punished for protesting it — and the U.S. is complicit
This month, the Saudi Arabian authorities took the long-overdue step of easing restrictions on women under the kingdom’s repressive “male guardianship system.” Finally, women will be allowed to travel without needing the permission of a male relative.
It is an important victory. For decades, they had been subject to the whims and dictates of their brothers, fathers, husbands, and even sons. But the credit does not go to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whose reign has been breathlessly touted by the international media in the West as ushering in a wave of liberal reforms. The victory belongs to the brave feminists who defied him and whom he continues to imprison for no other crime than peacefully demanding women’s rights and campaigning for an end to the male guardianship system.
For their activism, these women and others have faced criminal charges, been wrenched away from their loved ones, imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to sexual abuse.
The announcement came days before Loujain al-Hathloul — a long-time campaigner for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — was forced to spend her 30th birthday behind bars, where she has endured torture and other mistreatment since May 2018. Along with al-Hathloul, it is women like Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Nassima al-Sada, and Nouf Abdulaziz who have been punished for challenging the male guardianship system, and other abusive laws, that reduced them to second-class citizens.
For their activism, these women and others have faced criminal charges, been wrenched away from their loved ones, imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to sexual abuse. While being interrogated by high-ranking officials, according to reports by Amnesty International, they were even flogged. When al-Hathloul’s parents visited her in prison last December, she showed them the deep black scars on her thighs, the lasting traces of electric shocks. The conditions have been so forbidding that one detainee attempted to take her own life.
We know some of the names of the Saudi women who have been punished for resisting the patriarchal codes of the kingdom. There are many, many others whose names are not known, whose families have been silenced by fear. If the Saudi Arabian authorities were genuinely committed to reform, these women would not only be freed but also heralded as heroes. Given the many repressive elements that remain in force, there could be many more women condemned to a fate just as cruel.
Despite the recent changes, men can still punish women for displaying “filial disobedience” — for “disobeying” their fathers or husbands. It’s a criminal charge that has been used several times in the past against Saudi women who sought to break out of their desperate circumstances and seek safety outside of the kingdom — only for them to be forcibly returned, detained, and placed on trial. Fathers still have the “right” to decide whom their daughter marries, a form of coercion that leads many to suffer abusive marriages. The guardianship system protects the perpetrators of domestic violence, giving husbands the power to decide whether or not a woman can leave shelter.
Few, if any, of these details were allowed to disturb the coverage that flowed from the government’s announcement of the changes to the male guardianship system. Instead, we are asked to become accomplices in a charade that casts the Crown Prince and the Saudi government as a lonely, beleaguered voice earnestly seeking to reform the kingdom and establish gender equality in the face of daunting challenges. We are expected to cheer his and his government’s every move, no matter how modest, or how reluctantly taken, or how hypocritical in practice. And we are expected to quietly ignore the fact that he, as the principal actor in an absolutist monarchy, chooses to remorselessly punish the very women who have done the most to push for reform — and so many others, as in Yemen, who suffer the consequences of his reckless decisions.
A leading cast member in this charade is Ivanka Trump, the U.S. President’s daughter and senior advisor. Misleading her followers on Twitter, Ivanka claimed that the male guardianship system was being “dismantled” and cheered the development as “major progress.” Ivanka has never spoken out against the male guardianship system. She has never expressed any solidarity with the women who have suffered because of it. She has never called for the release of the Saudi feminists still behind bars. She has never denounced the horrors they have had inflicted upon them. The only mentions of Saudi women that seem to merit her attention are ones that flatter the Crown Prince as the reformist he isn’t.
The only approach to women’s rights worthy of our attention and support is where the women who suffer the most are heard the loudest.
It is perhaps not surprising. Ivanka’s father’s administration is Saudi Arabia’s strongest ally and has whitewashed the kingdom’s human rights abuses. We’ve seen this in the case of the U.S. government blocking accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the kingdom’s abuses in Yemen.
But Ivanka Trump isn’t the first member of the U.S. first family to instrumentalize women’s rights in this way. Just weeks after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, then-first lady, Laura Bush, took her husband’s place in a weekly radio address to the nation. “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” she said, suggesting that the war was being fought on their behalf. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Since then, the same women’s rights that were used to justify the invasion were often ignored during the conflict and now, as the U.S. seeks to negotiate peace with the Taliban, they risk being discarded altogether in a process that has effectively sidelined them. These selective invocations of women’s rights are not just opportunistic, they are dangerous. Women must never be used to lend a luster of nobility to a foreign policy that will ultimately ignore or betray them. The only approach to women’s rights worthy of our attention and support is where the women who suffer the most are heard the loudest.
Politically expedient White feminism exemplified by the likes of Ivanka Trump and Laura Bush has meant that women’s rights in repressive countries are crushed by the way U.S. administrations either prop up authoritarian states hell-bent on quashing women’s rights, or are co-opted to justify U.S. military action in these countries. Whether it’s through hollow concern for women’s rights in Iran, zealotry rhetoric about “liberating” women in Afghanistan, or ignoring women’s rights abuses in countries they deem as allies like Saudi Arabia, women’s rights globally is only ever a tool to be exploited for U.S. foreign policy interests.
Unlike their approach in Iran, the U.S., joined by western allies, have chosen to prop up and whitewash Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on women’s rights — its current ally.
Women’s rights in places like the Middle East would be far better off if governments, particularly in the Western world, stop exploiting women’s rights issues for their foreign policy interests and spare us their politically expedient feminism.