Thursday, October 7, 2010

UPDATE: At Long Last, A Widow Leaves Saudi Arabia


Painting by Tagreed Al Bagshi

Asima, the Western widow I had previously written about in a four-part series, whose Saudi husband passed away a decade ago, is no longer in Saudi Arabia. Although I am not at liberty to supply particulars, I can tell you that she and her two children are safely outside the country.

Because of the ages of her two children at the time of her husband's death and because of the way the Saudi system demands that every grown woman must have a legal male guardian, called a "mahram," the young mother and her children were trapped in Saudi Arabia for close to ten years by her husband's family. She would have been allowed to leave the country without her children, but she refused to do that. Luckily for her, her oldest child was a boy, and once he reached the required age, he became the legal guardian of his mother and his younger sister, enabling them to finally leave the country. Had her two children been girls, neither one of her daughters would have ever been able to leave this country without the permission of their legal Saudi male guardian.

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiSaudi Arabia's guardianship system has come under fire in the past few years, with more and more Saudi women speaking out and demanding their basic human rights to make their own decisions about their education, health care, business, marriage, careers, and travel. As the existing law stands right now, no Saudi woman can pursue her education, or work, or travel without the express consent of her mahram. Despite the fact that in June 2009, Saudi Arabia pledged to the U.N. Human Rights Council to put an end to the male guardianship system, to grant women their own full and separate legal identity, and to make gender discrimination illegal, very little progress has been made.

While many Saudi women are generously given these choices by their guardians, there are also many who are abused by the system and are denied a say in their own lives. This gender discrimination situation has been criticized by human rights groups that are upset that Saudi women are regarded as children in the eyes of Saudi law for their entire lives, with some even saying that Saudi women are considered to be no more than a man's property.

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiSabria Jawhar, a respected Saudi journalist and named by Arabian Business Magazine as one of the world's most influential Arabs in its "2010 Power 100 list," wrote about an instance of abuse of 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 another article about what a young Canadian woman had to endure because of Saudi Arabia's guardianship system.

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiThere are some Saudi women who are perfectly content with the way things are and believe that Saudi women are better off than Western women because of it. These women feel that since they are happy with the status quo, then all Saudi women must be happy. Last year in response to KSA's agreement to make changes in the guardian system, a group of privileged Saudi women spearheaded by two Princesses launched a campaign called "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me," in favor of keeping the Saudi guardianship system intact. Within a couple of weeks, they had collected more than 5000 signatures. They are also opposed to socializing between opposite genders as well as being against men and women working together.

So while some Saudi women are speaking out to demand the right to make their own decisions on their own merits as perfectly capable adults, there is a counter-movement thwarting their efforts and citing religion, culture, customs, and traditions as their excuses for why things should remain the same. Some Saudi women activists, led by the country's most visible women's freedom fighter Wajeha al-Huwaider, have organized the Black Ribbon Campaign in protest of Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system. Al-Huwaider says, “I am an adult woman that has been earning my own income for over a decade now but according to the Saudi government, I am a dependent until the day I die because of my gender.”

Painting by Tagreed Al BagshiMaybe the guardianship system was a good and logical idea back when it was first implemented many years ago, back when most Saudi girls never got past a 4th grade education before they were married off to an older cousin and started having babies. But today's Saudi woman is often times better educated, is arguably more motivated than her male counterpart, and with today's technology, she is much more aware of the basic human rights enjoyed by women around the world that she is being denied. Could it be that an independent and well-educated Saudi woman is considered a threat to the family, or as unwanted competition in the workplace to the Saudi man who has reigned unchallenged and has exercised unlimited control over all women in this country?

The guardianship system failed the widowed Asima, who along with her children, were basically held captive in Saudi Arabia for a decade, and it continues to fail the many other women who are routinely abused and denied the right to play a role in their own lives and destinies. Saudi Arabia should keep its promises that it made in June 2009 to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Set the women here free. It's time.

The haunting paintings of Saudi women in this post are by Saudi female artist Tagreed Al Bagshi. To me, Al Bagshi has captured the intimacy of life here for many Saudi women who seem to exist in a gilded cage: the boredom, the apathy, the loneliness, the despair, the lethargy, the sadness, the isolation, the hopelessness.
Visit Al Bagshi's website at:


  1. Great post. I had never heard of the male guardianship concept. Great paintings also.

  2. Susie...I find it difficult to believe that any woman would not want to be free of this male domination. What a sad situation. There is something so wrong with this's more like ownership or slavery. What a hypocritical society...the men can do whatever and the woman very little. To me, it's no different than breaking the spirit of animal until they are submissive.
    I hope that you would be able to leave if you ever want to. You are a very strong and patient woman, to live in this society. Don't know how you do it.

  3. Excellent summary, and beautiful use of these paintings to illustrate.

    Interestingly, the Canadian woman, Nazia Quazi, is an Indo-Canadian, whose father kept her in Saudi to prevent her marrying an Indo-German, because she is Muslim and he is Hindu. They are all ie the couple and both families in Dubai planning to get legal permission to marry there (should be straight forward, the groom is resident there for years, and converted to Islam officially), and then have "a big Indian wedding", perhaps in India where Nazia's parents are returning.

    The moral of the story perhaps being that whomsoever has an iqama to live in Saudi can take advantage of the mahrem system to control his daughter, etc.

    As you have written before, this system now applies to you as well, Susie. Odd turn of life events, to put it mildly. I hope you are doing well and better with it.

    Last, and not least, congratulations and best wishes to Asima and children!!!

  4. Hi Susie,
    I think that the hardest thing would be knowing that your decisions had little effect on the end result. You think about those women in the "my gardian knows best," campaign. If they want to give up their rights: we are not stopping them. But, why should that be for everyone?
    Whether it is taking the right for women to seek an education or go
    where they choose (KSA) or
    banning them from wearing the burqa in public (France), the taking of one's freedom is still a disgrace.

  5. Hi Susie,
    I think that the hardest thing would be knowing that your decisions had little effect on the end result. You think about those women in the "my gardian knows best," campaign. If they want to give up their rights: we are not stopping them. But, why should that be for everyone?
    Whether it is taking the right for women to seek an education or go
    where they choose (KSA) or
    banning them from wearing the burqa in public (France), the taking of one's freedom is still a disgrace.

  6. Let's think a moment of the woman who has never been confident in
    her own decisions: who is afraid and unsure about making a decision
    that might anger her male relatives: I can't imagine operating in that psychological paradigm. Actually, there are disabled people who always (if not usually) abdicate to the able bodied relative and feel that somehow they are superior.
    In this case, dependence also means relinquishing responsibility to take care of one's self.
    It is a bitter comfort for some.
    But, I can't imagine what an acceptance of "second class status" does to a woman's self worth and understanding about herself.
    I ask: where does she get her pride? Where does she get her accolades? If her anchor comes from her male relatives and not from her own abilities, then, she must always live in a bit of fear about one male passing away and how that might change her entire life.
    And, it also must be difficult to reconcile the Quran to what male
    relatives say that the Quran says ... if they do understand that
    these two are not synonymous. What happens when they are confronted with Muslim women who are given rights and freedoms that they don't enjoy?
    And yet, you live inside and outside. If I am correct, you do have that choice to leave your husband and accompany your son in the states. Correct me if I have it wrong because I have not been able to read many of your earlier posts. But, this makes you different than many women in KSA.
    Yet, you do stay and you endure, which makes you different than some
    women who have opted to go back to America or their country of origin.
    That brings a new dimension to your situation. And, I am sure that you and Adnan (and many male relatives, although your son could be your closest male relative and negate any other family interference) have had that discussion about: "What happens if Adnan is no longer here?"
    And, how to obey God "Allah" in all of this? What is "trust in Allah?" Do we trust him to soften the hearts of the males? Do we trust that if we stand for our rights that he will make a way for us? Serious subjects!

  7. Very nice picture, and your blog is fun to read and watch. I like it very much. Come take a look Teuvo images blog and tell all your friends Teuvo pictures on your blog that the fermentation can be your country's flag higher in my blog. A very good continuation of the autumn to you. Teuvo Vehkalahti Suomi Finland

  8. it was nice to read your thoughts and views.

  9. Thanks for taking on this critical issue, Susie. I personally know of at least two Saudi women who are trapped by the system in differing ways. My Stateside friends often ask whether the situation exists because Saudi women are oppressed by the male power structure or because they acquiesce (or, as one woman put it, "drank the Kool Aid") in their own oppression.

    Now, on a nitpicky note, I wonder if you meant for the following phrase, "every grown woman must have a legal male guardian," to link to a Wikipedia article that simply discusses the word 'woman'?

  10. Promises promises, KSA it's time to keep your word.

  11. Oh, and FANTASTIC portraits by Tagreed Al Bagshi !!!

  12. ... but the link to her website doesn't seem to work !!!?!!!

  13. Hi Yogi - The male guardianship system in KSA is the only one like it in the world and is a pressing issue for women whose guardians do not do or know what is best for their charges. It's a huge problem for many women here.

    Hi Lori - My husband assures me that I can leave here any time I want. He'll not keep me here against my will if I no longer wish to be here.

    Hi Chiara - Good point about the Canadian woman whose non-Saudi father kept her in KSA for 3 yrs against her will. Even expat couples are subject to this law - the man is king here.

    Hi Jan - Thanks for your thoughtful comments. If the guardianship system is eliminated here, I'm sure there will be some women who will choose to remain the wards of their mahrams. But to keep all women in these chains is unfair and clearly not in the best interest of many of them.
    We have discussed the issue of what happens to me if something were to happen to my husband, in the presence of his brother who would probably be appointed my mahram here if Adam is not around. My wish would be to leave this country, and there would be no problem with that. Always good to hear from you...

  14. Thank you for writing this post! And your blog. It´s very interesting to read what´s going on in Saudi Arabia, without the fanatic expression of view from one side or another.
    And those paintings are very telling...
    Love from
    Tove in Greece

  15. Hi Teuvo - Thanks for your comment.

    Hi Hamid - It's such a volatile issue that I really haven't talked about much before - thanks!

    Hi Veeds - I don't know why that link came up, but thanks for alerting me to it. Hopefully it's fixed now. I know that we have discussed before one of your friends who is in a bad guardianship situation here. This system just doesn't work fairly for everyone and should be abolished.

  16. Btw, the link to the painter´s website doesn´t work - or at least not for me.

  17. Hi Nathalie & Mamma Mia - I don't know what's wrong with the artist's webpage - I'll keep checking it. Thanks for letting me know.

  18. Whatever it's named by, this is slavery, pure and simple. Yes, I'm applying my own Western standards to it, but then again there are obviously women in the KSA who feel the same way. As for those women who approve of the system, one must wonder how they would feel if suddenly they were faced with the prospect of some sort of cruel punishment for a perceived violation of "family honor," or other such nonsense. Does this not also go hand-in-hand with this type of behavior?

    Governments promise many things, and while the government of the KSA may have promised to change things, it will take action to prove that their words have substance. Perhaps allowing women to drive might be a good place to start?

  19. Wonderful post Susie!

    I think its unfair that there are many women within KSA who are exceptionally talented and can't contribute to the society's growth. And its sad that everyone wishes to apply criteria for judgement from their own point of view. Some view mahram system as slavery, some view it as necessity. There is no puritan utopian society, but if all the people (women's choice) in the world who preferred one system over another and had a freedom (I mean complete unrestricted freedom) to move to the country of that system, the population of KSA might increase. For every family or every woman who might choose the "freedom" there are those who would much rather live in the mahram system, many from US. There are many of us who are living in western countries, and we still very much exercise the Sunnah of Muhammad pbuh.

    It's all about the dynamics of husband/wife/parents. There are men who are loving and caring, and who will make decisions for the betterment of their families. I understaffed that there are abusive men and fathers and brothers who take advantage of the system. But there are such pricks everywhere, Asian countries are flooded with them, from India to all the countries that end with ...stan. Without mahram system being legally enforced, they still get away with controlling the lives of women with iron fist.

  20. Fascinating article. Thanks.
    I came to you via the always interesting My Treasure blog.

  21. Admittedly the system will be abused by a minority, but this is the same for any system in the world. Too much liberty and freedom can also lead to sorrow and oppression.
    You also have to realise that saudi society and Islamic society is different to the West. Perhaps it is the elite group who are western educated or very much exposed to the western ideologies that are pushing for the change and crying foul. What of the many average, content Saudi woman that does not find her life oppressed nor stifled by this?

  22. A Canadian ReaderOct 8, 2010, 9:08:00 PM

    In response to Anonymous: I'm very sure there were happy, well-treated slaves in the US before the Civil War. I'm sure there are lots of happy, well-treated women in KSA. However, this is a question of basic, human rights.

    I have a lot of trouble viewing this as an Islamic state versus the West issue. Women are either full-fledged citizens, with all the same rights as men or they are chattel--no matter what country they live in and what religion they practice.

    I am happy that Susie's husband would not stand in her way if she wanted to leave KSA, but the fact that she has to say this speaks tragic volumes about the place of women in this country.

  23. What I find most disturbing is that KSA claims to be the sentinel of Islam. They fund salafist mosques all over the world. They want to shove this male-supremacist system down the throats of humanity.

    This system of female subjugation to the male gender is nothing more than enslavement, as many have stated.

    It is criminal that a male child has more rights than an adult woman.

    What is it about Saudi males, that they have this need to dominate and control half of the human race? Perhaps because they themselves are not very accomplished or respected in the world?

    Susie, I have to hand it to you to tolerate such oppression and subjugation. I could not/would not live under such a system no matter how much I loved my husband. My position would be, that if he loved me, he would not ask me to do it. I still do not comprehend why your husband is putting you through this. Evidently your son also wonders about that.

    Not for any reason whatsoever would I, as a free Western woman, go to Saudi Arabia to be a prisoner of men, forced to wear a black-shroud and not be able to go out of my home or drive or shop or study or mix with the male sex without harassment or do anything that is normal in human society.

    NO WAY! I would rather die.

  24. Assuming that the education system is comparable in Saudi and the UAE where 70% of University Graduates are female
    and the fact that this is despite the likelihood that there is considerable effort put into getting the males into University and out with a ‘degree’;
    what the Saudi system is doing is putting the most educated section of their community under the control of the uneducated mass . A slippery oily slope

  25. Susie - your readers might be interested in this (these) books as they cover a similar (worse actually) situation in Yemen

  26. A brave post, and very educational. The paintings are beautiful. Thank you.

  27. Hi Susie, I love your blog as usual. I see that you sometimes get very board, frustrated, hot, annoyed, perplexed and confused while living in Jeddah, but you should know that I always look forward to reading your posts and they often make my day. Some of the readers' comments, not so much, but your posts, Susie, are great. :) Your husband must be an absolutely amazing man for a strong woman like you to live somewhere that is obviously not your ideal place to call home.

    Now to the point...I saw this on another Saudi-related blog-does this not apply to you, or do I misunderstand the mmeaning?

    "Special notice for Saudi men wanting to marry American women: The Saudi Government has added new regulations for Saudi men wishing to marry foreigners. Saudi men must first sign a binding document granting irrevocable permission for their foreign born spouses and children born of foreign spouses, to travel freely and unhindered in and out of Saudi Arabia before the Saudi Government will give permission for him to marry. This regulation went into force on February 20, 2008, and is not retroactive. The U.S. Embassy can intercede with the Saudi government to request exit permission for adult American women who are not affected by this new regulation, but will not be able to obtain permission for the departure of minor children without the father's agreement (See Entry/Exit Requirements section above). Obtaining exit permission for an adult American woman can take many months." Source: US Dept Of State


  28. This is a very informative post, Susie. I feel so sad for the Saudi women. It's so unfair. The artist truly captured the melancholy and grief of the Saudi women.

  29. I have just read this story a few years after been published but i always agree and believe that there is no stale news. Asima is a very brave, strong and courageous woman. Thanks for the eagle-eyed judge who realized the father-in-law's evil intent. The story is indeed an eye opener.

  30. "Maybe the guardianship system was a good and logical idea back when it was first implemented many years ago." I very much doubt that. :p

  31. Thank you so much for sharing with us Asima's story. I wish I was around to help her. Her story has brought tears to my eyes. May Allah give her and her children a more bright future.

    I would just like to point out that the Guardianship system in Islam is innocent of such opression. Unfortunately some people do not fear Allah, and have forgotten about the day of judgement.

    I agree that ANY women needs to make sure she is as independent as possible and to have eagle eyes for her rights.