Thursday, November 10, 2011

Overbearing Legal Guardians

Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist; Online Editor for Al Arabiya; Saudi Arabia

The thorny issue of the legal guardian affects every detail of a Saudi woman’s daily
life. She goes to school with permission from her guardian. She works as he pleases,and he can force her to leave the job at any time. The legal guardian can either pressure a woman to get married and take her dowry, or refuse to marry her off and keep
her income, all with the blessing of Saudi law. Moreover, this situation persists even
though Islam prescribes financial independence for women. In a bold attempt to rebel
against the authority of legal guardians, Hoda al-Geresi, chairwoman of the board for
the women’s branch of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, sent an open letter to King
Abdullah arguing that Cabinet decision 120/2004, which addresses some aspects of
women’s independence, has still not been implemented. The decree, passed three
years ago, aims to facilitate employment for women, and includes provisions opening
women’s centers to safeguard women against abusive legal guardians.
 Speaking on behalf of businesswomen, al-Geresi criticized government interference that obstructs
women from investing in a number of business ventures, in addition to the difficulties
faced by Saudi businesswomen in obtaining permits for certain activities.
In addition to the Saudi businesswomen who oppose the current legal guardian policies, there are a number of enlightened men who also openly denounce the
guardianship law. Dr. Abdullah Al-Fawzan, a sociology professor at King Saud University, argued for rethinking the current statutes and passing laws that prevent Saudi men from dominating women, which would clear the way for women to play a more critical role in the economy. Al-Fawzan has called for the
government to put men and women on equal
footing in investment, so as to free up the estimated one billion riyals ($267 million) or
more currently in women’s bank accounts.
Al-Fawzan reasons that the administrative and legislative framework in Saudi Arabia
“was designed to empower men. We live in a patriarchal society, and so the government should support women.”
Although the government has recognized that economically integrating women
begins with education, and has accordingly improved educational opportunities for
women, the next fundamental step is to boost the number of Saudi women in the
workplace. Currently, roughly 300,000 Saudi women work, comprising 5 percent of
the Saudi national labor force. Ironically, the constraints on female employment mean
that women in the workforce are generally much better qualified than men, with half of working women possessing a college degree, compared to only 16 percent of men.
Trying to describe this situation, Loulwa al-Saidan, a Saudi real estate investor, bitterly
repeated an aphorism that has become common in the Kingdom:
‘Everything is available for women in Saudi Arabia.’ For me to go to any government
agency or to the court to buy or sell property, as a woman I am obligated to bring two
men as witnesses to testify to my identity, and four male witnesses to testify that the
first two are credible witnesses, and actually know me. Where is any woman going to
find six men to go with her to the court?! It’s hard for me to get my legal rights, and
a lot of women complain to me about this. Word has even spread among the women
that the solution is to use one’s connections, pay a bribe or be sharp-tongued

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