Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System

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Human Rights Watch, July 2016

In Saudi Arabia, a woman’s life is controlled by a man from birth until death. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.

As dozens of Saudi women told Human Rights Watch, the male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country, effectively rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make key decisions for themselves.

Rania, a 34-year-old Saudi woman, said, “We are entrusted with raising the next generation but you can’t trust us with ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Every Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social class, is adversely affected by guardianship policies.

Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, or exit prison. They may be required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare. Women regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims.

The impact these restrictive policies have on a woman’s ability to pursue a career or make life decisions varies, but is largely dependent on the good will of her male guardian. In some cases, men use the authority that the male guardianship system grants them to extort female dependents. Guardians have conditioned their consent for women to work or to travel on her paying him large sums of money.

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