The Gulf's abusive male guardianship laws are about patriarchy, not religion

The Gulf's abusive male guardianship laws are about patriarchy, not religion
Despite strides in women's rights, guardianship laws that give male relatives control over the women in their lives remain the most significant impediment to gender equality. But Islamic law is not the true culprit, writes Yousra Samir Imran.
7 min read
01 Sep, 2022
Three women wearing the traditional niqab and black abayas and one Saudi man relax on the Corniche waterfront on June 22, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. [Getty]

Police in New South Wales, Australia are trying to piece together how Saudi Arabian sisters Asra Abdullah Alsehli and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli died after finding their bodies in their apartment in June with no clear signs of injury. Apparently, they had already been dead for a month by the time they were found.

New details have emerged that they had attended a queer event back in January and perhaps fear of persecution for their sexual identity may have been part of the reason they were seeking asylum in Australia. They also feared a private investigator was following them.

This heartbreaking story is not the first of its kind – hundreds and possibly thousands of women each year make risky escapes from Gulf states to live a life free of the shackles of the male guardianship system, a legal system that infantilises women and enables men to abuse their female relatives. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws are by far the most draconian.

Guardianship laws, common across the region, deny women agency over their lives. Gulf states’ counter-argument to those who bring up the assault on women’s rights in the region is to point to the high levels of women succeeding in their fields.

"What is the point of being one of the highest politicians in the country if your ministership is reliant on permission from your husband, father, or male guardian?"

And while it is applaudable that in most Gulf nations the number of women pursuing higher education outnumbers men, or that in the UAE there are nine female ministers (more female ministers than we have in our current cabinet in UK), or that Saudi Arabia has the world’s third highest share of female entrepreneurs, it just isn’t good enough. 

In the eyes of the law, women remain inferior, and spend their entire life under the control of a male guardian who has the power to make decisions on your behalf, and whose permission you need to work, travel, book a hotel room, or get a driving licence.

What is the point of being one of the highest politicians in the country if your ministership is reliant on permission from your husband, father, or male guardian?

Guardianship laws affect expatriate women living in the Gulf too, and in particular women from other Arab nations whose families may adhere to similar social norms with regards to women’s place and behaviour in society.

Because of the sponsorship system, women who have accompanied male relatives to live in the Gulf, or women who were born in Gulf countries, also get stuck seeking permission from their male sponsor to work, get a driving licence, and get married, among other things.

It is incredibly difficult as a working woman to transfer your sponsorship to that of the company you work for if you have a male relative living in the country as the Ministry of Interior in most Gulf states prefers to put you under the latter’s sponsorship, literally giving that male guardian control over your life.

I experienced this when I was working in the Gulf and wanted to transfer my own sponsorship from my father to my employer and was told I couldn’t unless he left the country or died. Even then, it would be transferred to my younger brother. Can you imagine having to seek permission to live your life from a brother who is a decade younger than you?

While expatriate women do not normally need permission to travel, their male guardian can still issue a travel ban without their knowledge if they want to prohibit them from leaving the country – another grim reality I have first-hand experience with.

People point to Saudi Arabia’s supposed ‘modernisation’ since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) lifted the ban on women driving, allowed women to travel without needing a male guardian’s approval, and recently allowed women to live alone without a male guardian’s permission (when only up until recently women were arrested or forcibly disappeared when they tried to do so), but question yourself as to why he also arrested all the women’s rights activists who for decades had campaigned for women to drive?

What we need to understand is that MbS didn’t lift these guardianship laws and bans because he truly believes in women’s rights. Rather, his message was clear: ‘I, as the benevolent ruler, am granting you these rights, and you will get your rights only when I decide to hand them out – anyone else who tries to campaign for an end to these laws is dissenting.’

It was a policy of appeasement (mainly appeasement of the West), handing out a few rights to women, but the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia is still alive and well. Women still cannot marry, leave prison, divorce, or exit a domestic abuse shelter without a male guardian’s permission, and Saudi women still cannot pass on citizenship to children born of a non-Saudi father.

Why is it then that Gulf states will not end guardianship laws? It comes down to two things: a traditionalist interpretation of the Quran, and appeasement of the highly patriarchal tribal system. In all Gulf countries most families come from millennia-old tribes in which men are the patriarchs, and the support of the Sheikhs of each tribe still play a role in the legitimacy of each Gulf ruling family and their ability to rule without uprisings.

"If Gulf countries can reinterpret Islamic law when it comes to Islamic finance so that they can still charge interest by simply calling it 'bank charges', then they can relook at male guardianship while staying in line with religion"

Most of these tribes still hold extremely patriarchal views tied to the concepts of their female family members representing the honour of the family. Guardianship laws control the behaviour of Gulf women to prevent them from doing anything considered culturally “shameful.”

Gulf states always argue that they cannot abolish the guardianship system and give full agency to women because it is in contradiction to Sharia law. But it is important to note that they follow a Wahabbi understanding of the Sharia which is, again, highly patriarchal.

What they do not realise – or perhaps do not want to realise as it does not serve their interests in upholding the patriarchy – is that the concepts of wilaayah (guardianship) and qawwamah (the idea of men having a degree over women and upholding them) that they point to as divine law necessitating the guardianship system can be looked at through an egalitarian lens that will enable them to still to adhere to the Sharia while abolishing a legal system that is discriminatory and unjust.

Certain Islamic laws, including those of wilaayah and qawwamah, are specific to certain socio-historical contexts and can be reinterpreted and reapplied as socio-economic circumstances and norms change. At the time that the Quranic verses regarding male qawwamah were revealed, men generally were the breadwinners and their status was outlined by how they provided economically for women.


But we now live in an era where women earn and are the breadwinners too. In this way, as outlined by Asma Lamrabet in her essay in the book Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, qawwamah becomes egalitarian as all genders are contributing to society and providing towards the family in both economic and non-economic ways.

With regards to wilaayah and male guardianship, this was specific to the society at the time the Quranic verses were revealed, a highly archaic society in which the first Muslims were being persecuted and killed. This is not the case anymore in Gulf countries, hence male wilaayah is redundant.

If Gulf countries can reinterpret Islamic law when it comes to Islamic finance so that they can still charge interest by simply calling it “bank charges”, then they can relook at male guardianship while staying in line with religion.

What you cannot do is pick and choose where you can and cannot reinterpret the Quran. The truth is that it is patriarchal interests, not religion, that are stopping them from abolishing male guardianship laws.

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.