Saturday, November 24, 2012

Keeping Her on a Tight Leash

Recently there has been an interesting development pertaining to Saudi women's mobility hitting the news.  No, we're still not allowed to drive here and it doesn't look like we will be any time soon.  But first, let me give you a little background information to help explain the reasoning for this new policy. Saudi women have the legal status of children their entire lives. There is a designated male guardian who is legally responsible for each and every Saudi woman, no matter how old she is. From birth until she marries, the woman's legal guardian is her father. Upon marriage, her legal guardian becomes her husband. In cases where she no longer has a father or husband, the responsibility falls to another relative, such as her brother, uncle, or son.


"Mahram" is the Saudi term given for the woman's legal guardian. Without her mahram's permission and/or accompaniment, a Saudi woman may not continue her education, travel, work, receive medical attention, marry, or appear in court. Many Saudi women are very happy with this arrangement of not being responsible for major decisions in their lives and being taken care of. However, as you can imagine, this system opens the door for abuses of many Saudi women by unscrupulous and misguided male guardians.

Outsiders tend to interpret this guardianship system as Saudi women being nothing more than the property of men, which Saudis vehemently deny. Saudis argue that their women are treated with more respect and have more rights than their western counterparts, which I must admit is an argument that I don't see or understand.


So what is the new mobility issue that has been in the news here lately? Saudi Arabia has implemented a new tracking system for women and other dependents. Saudi men will now receive a text message when their wives, children, or even sponsored employees leave or enter the country in a program being called "Relax! We'll track your wife down!" Some have wondered why the government just doesn't go ahead and equip Saudi women with ankle bracelets similar to those worn by criminals, or better yet, why not just implant an electronic chip under the women's skin? Of course women cannot leave the country without her mahram's written consent, but one did slip through the cracks recently causing quite a scandal, so apparently this is what has prompted this new female monitoring and tracking system.


I might point out that phone companies in the US offer tracking services for family members' phones.  It is an optional tracking service offered for a fee that many parents use to keep tabs on their teenagers who are on their phone plan.  Of course, if the phone is turned off no tracking signal is emitted. Also a common practice in the states is to implant pets with electronic GPS chips for tracking in case the pet is lost. GPS technology has opened up a world of amazing, though sometimes scarey, possibilities.  But Saudi women are adults, not property or pets.

At any rate, Saudi women continue to feel the grip tightening and the thought of true freedom continues to be an elusive dream for many.  Saudi men continue to enjoy their own personal freedoms while exerting their control and retaining their dominance and power over the women of this country.

Are Saudi men really that insecure and distrustful, and do Saudi women really need to be monitored and controlled in these ways? 


28 comments:

  1. Sigh . . .
    I try to imagine having my son as mahram.

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    1. I know, Dina - and some mahrams are still just boys themselves.

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    2. "Mom, if you take away my phone just because I stole $1000 from you, then you're not allowed to go see your sick father!"

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  2. My question here, and with any other abuse of power, is that you must be doing something wrong if you need to track your woman in this way. If you were a better husband/brother/father, you wouldn't need to worry about your wife/sister/daughter running away!

    The worst part for me is how many women accept it. I guess when you grow up with it... I think it's fairly similar to the attitudes women had here in the US before suffrage and women's lib.

    I am not aware of GPS chips for dogs, at least not in my state. Would be pretty sweet if they had those. What they have are RFID chips, where the dogs can be scanned at the vet or shelter, but the chips do not transmit information as would be needed for GPS. These chips can be problematic as not all scanners read all chips, so your lost dog may be found, but the scanner won't read the info in the chip.

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    1. Hi Sara - You definitely have a point about if some men treated the women in their lives better, they wouldn't need to worry about them running away. One Saudi man, Hisham, tweeted, “If I need an SMS to let me know my wife is leaving Saudi Arabia, then I’m either married to the wrong woman or need a psychiatrist.”

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  3. I have heard various justifications for the mahram system--most of which, frankly, seem to only make sense in the justifiable context of the 7th century. And I have personal knowledge of the system from a few friends who shall remain nameless. However, it would be interesting and fair to hear a defense of the system from a well-spoken advocate, someone who could make whatever the strongest case is.

    While to the rest of the world, the seeming repression of women's rights in the KSA is abhorred, we must always remember that nations and cultural groups do things for reasons which cannot easily be judged outside of the culture.

    Is there anyone who can step up to support the Saudi system?

    I'm guessing the available arguments would mostly relate to the alleged dangers to women of being unprotected but the real subtext would be about the slippery slope of immoral behavior presumably engendered by women running amok, free to engage in liaisons.

    So, anyone?

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    1. Hi Veeds - I believe that vast majority of responses to this latest shackle on Saudi women has been that of outrage, even from Saudi men. I too would love to hear the valid arguments in favor of this measure.

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  4. Of course you know this drives me nuts! It is so hard to believe it goes on in the year 2012. Women might as well be in prison..."nations and cultural groups do things for reasons which cannot easily be judged outside of the culture." In today's world people are quite aware of what goes on in different cultures and it seems outrageous because it is. If my husband needed to track me down 24/7 I would not be with him. I imagine there are just as many bright men and women in SA as there are anywhere. Why do they continue to put up with these archaic ideas? Why do western woman even consider subjecting themselves to this? Those who lead the country must have an incredible amount of power to be able to suppress half of the population. Of course, I have very little knowledge about what it is really like. From the outside looking in, I find it very sad. Kudos to you Susie, for being such a loyal wife.

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    1. Thanks, Lori - Fortunately more and more people, both men and women, are speaking out against the inequities of the system here. Saudis are making good use of social media to voice their opinions. That's why it's so hard for me to understand how Saudis can so easily adapt to modern technology and advances, while they continue to give excuses about how the society needs more time to gradually accept social changes.

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  5. I once heard from an old friend, "In Saudi Arabia, a woman is guilty until proven innocent". This article re-affirms this statement :-(

    What I wanna know is, WHY??

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    1. Things here in KSA seem to always be the fault of a woman - because it's a man's world here.

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  6. Hi, I think it is not possible to generalize these cases to the whole Saudi population. For me, and many Saudi men, we will allow our female relatives under our custody to travel anywhere any time as long as there is a need, regardless of religious instructions, because in Islam prohibited actions are allowable when necessary. There are countless rational Saudi men who can talk with their wives, daughters ..etc, discuss their needs, do their orders and be very kind to them. Hopefully, you can change the picture about us.
    I can admit that some Saudi women suffer from abuses, but these would be limited cases, just like what happens every where. Have you asked Saudi women about their opinion? I suggest public votes for all women issues such as "the driving right" and see what people decide! isn't democracy? Secondly, women all over the world have their own issues. Why Saudi ones specifically? What about abortion in Western countries for example? Thirdly, I believe, and want, that reforms in the third world will come one day, but gradually when the society becomes prepared, not suddenly. Finally, the KSA has many other very major issues to be raised and discussed: unemployment, corruption, health issues like obesity and diabetes and so on. The KSA is topping the world countries in traffic accidents victims, where about 17 deaths in average occur daily! We have to solve or reduce this first.

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    1. I agree with you that there are many Saudi men who are good guardians to the women under their control - but this is the way it should be. The problem with the mahram system is that it does open the doors for abuse and this makes it very unfair for many Saudi women. It is not just a handful of cases - there are many. The system places these women in a position where they have little or no legal recourse. Sure, abuse happens everywhere, but here in KSA men are given the upper hand by the system - and that doesn't happen everywhere else in the world. What's wrong with all adults being responsible for themselves? I have no need for my husband to have the right to make decisions for me that I am perfectly capable of making for myself. I have said before that I know many Saudi women who are perfectly content with not being responsible for themselves, but what about those who are not? The number of those Saudi women who want more for themselves and their daughters is growing.
      I get really tired of the excuses I hear in this country all the time - about how new measure need to be introduced "gradually." How many more decades do you mean by "gradually?" The driving issue has been an issue for decades. If KSA stops crippling half the population and allows women to drive, gets rid of many of the foreign male drivers, and implements real traffic rules in this country, the abysmal traffic situation would vastly improve. Nothing is being done about the outrageously shameful Saudi driving records - exactly how gradual before KSA takes this seriously?
      P S - I don't understand your point about abortion at all.

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    2. The superiority of men over women in the KSA is derived from instructions of Islam. Saudi men might have misinterpreted these instructions for their interests, but these values remain deeply rooted in the Saudi society. A growing number of Saudi people are advocating the rights of women such as education, not segregation, driving, defending themselves in courts ..etc. These liberal groups are viewed by religious men as infidels! and most of the public follow the religious party!! I presume you have knowledge about the debatable issues in our society. In my opinion, I think Saudi women, not someone else, should take the steps to achieve their rights, and as much as they prove their presence, they will definitely get them. The change always succeeds if, and only if, it comes from inside the society and individuals themselves. I think people in the KSA become suspicious, and hence dismissive, whenever they feel that changes come from outside; the Western culture or other religious groups. Are you aware of the penetration and imperiousness that the (Shi'it) want to make in the KSA by raising women issues? If not, that means there are many cross-cultural issues underlining this situation that you do not understand!

      Regarding major problems including traffic disasters and health issues, I think that many factors are contributing to them, and women non-empowerment could be one of these factors. Thank you.

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  7. A Canadian ReaderNov 28, 2012, 8:04:00 PM

    Susie, do we still need to hear valid arguments in favour of foot-binding, or valid arguments against giving women the vote? Come on! You want to hear "valid" arguments in favour of treating women as if they had no more common sense than a newborn? I think you've been in KSA a bit too long. Or else you've been taken in by Fox News's notion of "fair and balanced".

    And as working on other issues first, as Anonymous suggests, you can draw a very straight line between the Saudi oppression of women and the insanity that passes for driving on the roads of KSA. There are also no doubt many links between health problems like obesity and diabetes and keeping women locked up in their homes, for all intents and purposes.

    "Valid arguments"? Sheesh. That's all I can say.

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    1. A Canadian Reader - The whole point of this post is that there are no valid arguments for this new development. If you think I am at all defending this measure, then you need to reread the post.

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    2. A Canadian ReaderNov 29, 2012, 6:53:00 AM

      Hi Susie,

      I honestly did not catch the sarcasm in your response to Veeds. My bad. Sorry bout that.

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  8. It is easy to understand why Saudi culture developed the way it did. The country was extremely undeveloped economically, the population was largely nomadic and uneducated. People relied on the family for most resources including protection. Those conditions have changed. The Saudis are not unique in having growing pains related to the change in the economic status of their country. What is unique is that their wealth has allowed the male power structure to act as if they were living in the 8th century but to use 21st century tools (developed by foreigners of course) to enforce it.






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    1. Hi Jerry - Your last sentence is an apt description of the situation here in Jeddah. I'm always amazed at how quickly they have adapted to modern technology, yet I look around me and I feel like I have been transported back in time.

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    2. The arguments about needing more time for change are just a way to avoid change at all. Changes in South Africa and the United States that were just as opposed and massive in nature (civil rights) were done in one generation's time. Do we still feel the effects? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Yes. And sometimes it only takes one mother and one son to change history - http://www.teachamericanhistory.org/File/Harry_T._Burn.pdf. Note that there were plenty of women who opposed voting rights that we now take for granted - and all the same type of arguments were used.

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    3. Efirefly - I totally agree with your statement: "The arguments about needing more time for change are just a way to avoid change at all." It is absolutely true. And thanks for the interesting link about the Burns family and women's suffrage.

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  9. This system is in place all over the Gulf, here in Qatar it's been the norm for a long time. It extends to alerts about the movements of anyone (including employees) under your sponsorship and is closely related to the systems restricting freedom of travel such as having to apply for exit visas etc. rather than being a gender issue. Just another twist on an old problem!

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    1. Hi Sprinkle - I guess it's the same in many Middle Eastern countries - men wanting to be in control.

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  10. Good day

    first of all woud ike to thank you for giving us chance to discues things here on your blog.

    Honestly , im saudi and i never heard about this tracking system !!!! i have sisters and mother and we are living very happly .Moreover, i see my married sisters are happy thanks god and very comfortable . bad cases or abuse are everywhere , every system has its own problems , no hard feelings but belive it or not , your freedom is the worst thing has been happend to the womans

    do you think westren system did not open the door widely for woman abusing ?

    lets see , rapping ratio in westren countries in USA for example each 2 minutes in USA there is raping case as per US department of justice !
    i dont think there is worst than abusing woman than being live in this situation been threated to be rappied at any moment in the name of freedom , Maby american woman have to try " Mahram " gaurdin :) to stop this scary woman upusing movie

    Please dont take things personaly , we our sisters , mothers , wifes and respect them more than you think , there is nothing personaly against woman , its customs and system availble everywhere , and the real democracy is to respect people thinking and respect their belives no matter how far it is of yours . you see your freedom and system is good and you are happy , but we see your freedom being davistating for woman life

    you know what see this hnestly from your deep heart and listen , it seems to me you live yes in saudi arabia , but u never trid to understand people around you from how they think , not from how you think about them !

    injoy

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GE7_gVGYksA

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXZ6z4a7lek



    Many thanks

    Amer

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    1. Hi Amer - Thank you for your comment. I truly have tried to understand why things are the way they are here. My mind works differently than yours - I want things to make sense to me and there are too many things that go on here in KSA that don't. For example, the driving issue and gender segregation. Many Saudi women have drivers from other countries - this places them inside the car with an unrelated man and costs the family an added expense paying for a driver. Where is the sense and logic in this? I am perfectly capable of driving myself.
      You see male dominance of Saudi women as protection and respect. I don't. I see it as control. I am not some delicate little creature that needs protecting and needs some man to make decisions for me.
      If you understand the following things about me, maybe you will see why I do not agree with you: I moved to Saudi Arabia in my mid-50s. Before the move, I was a working career woman all my life in the states. I have never been raped and I can say that none of my friends have been raped. I have always been responsible for myself and have always made my own decisions about my life. I have driven in the states since I was 16 yrs old and never had any problems with men bothering me or harassing me while I was driving. I enjoyed doing yard work, painting my house, and even remodeling the bathroom. I like doing things for myself. Some of my best friends in the states are men - we have somehow managed over the years not to have sex with each other. I see myself as having had a much more fulfilling life in America than the Saudi women I know.
      I have seen those videos before. The statistics about rape and how many women there are in the world compared to men are inaccurate and what you want to believe. I understand the original intent of multiple wives back hundreds of years ago, but in today's world, the idea is not necessary anymore, and most women and I find it extremely distasteful.
      I am now living in Saudi Arabia because my husband wants to live here - not me. I am here because I am a good wife and feel my place is with my husband. I have a right to express my disappointment with the way I am legally regarded as a child here in Saudi Arabia and resent that I must depend on my husband for everything, even though during the 30 yrs my husband lived in the states, I handled everything in our lives and drove myself everywhere. I am glad that the women in your family are happy with their lives - but what about the many women in KSA who are not?

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  11. A strange mixture of old and new ideals that I do not think as a Westerner I will ever completely understand.

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  12. Hello, I am a Muslim American and I've live in Saudi for twenty three years, now. I am sorry to say that your generalizations are extremely biased. I am also sorry to say that reading this article infuriated me. You have the right to express your dissatisfaction, but you do not have the right to insult my religion.
    Additionally, many of your points are either untrue or invalid. This ''tracking system'' is nonexistent. I have a Saudi family, and none of them have heard about this system. Not to be rude or anything, I also find it amusing how you described Saudi women as fragile creatures without rights. Saudi women do, in fact, have rights. Lots of them.
    One more thing, they are not in denial, as you like to claim them to be. You speak as though you've met and spoken to every Saudi member.
    While you claim that the Saudi society suffers from close mindedness, you might as well take a look at yourself. You see things from a single viewpoint.

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    1. The tracking system DOES indeed exist - I know of several Saudi men who have been alerted by text that their wives or children have departed or arrived KSA. You made a general statement that many of my points "are either untrue or invalid" but then you didn't list anything specifically that I said that was untrue. And how exactly did I insult your religion? You are saying that I said things that I did not. I did not describe Saudi women as "fragile creatures without rights!" Show me where I said that - I NEVER have and never would say anything like that. And where did I claim that "Saudi society suffers from close mindedness?" Show me where! You have totally fabricated these arguments of yours out of thin air. You are misinterpreting things I have said and you are just looking for things to be offended about. If you just want to get infuriated with me over things that you THINK I mean, then stay off my blog.

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