Saudi laws oppressing women must be abolished, not relaxed

Saudi laws oppressing women must be abolished, not relaxed
The Saudi move to relax male guardianship laws that restricted women's movements is commendable, but it is only a small step towards women's rights in the kingdom, argues Diana Alghoul
3 min read
06 May, 2017
Saudi women voting in municipal Elections [Getty]
Towards the latter part of the week, various Saudi outlets reported that King Salman had issued orders to soften laws on male guardianship for Saudi women.

Saudis on social media cautiously rejoiced the move, which now allows women in certain circumstances to study, access hospital treatment, work and represent themselves in court without consent, or presence of a male guardian.

But while there were Saudis praising the modest reforms, many women remained wary of treating the new laws as a revelation that would transform their lives, reminding themselves to remain cautious until the changes are actually implemented and change is materialised.

The relaxation of the guardianship laws also came around as the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen campaign entered its 300th day.

Other campaigns, such as #Women2Drive have lasted for as long as six years, after Saudi women took the Arab Spring as an opportunity to express their dismays about the systematic institutional patriarchy that clouds themselves and their country.

While such reforms could potentially make life easier for some women living in Saudi Arabia, it must be remembered that the guardianship system, albeit relaxed, is still in place.

In the eyes of the Saudi political establishment, women remain the responsibility of certain men in their lives, under the guise of cultural norms.

It cannot be forgotten that regardless of whether the reforms are properly implemented, they only affect Saudi women. Wider institutional shortfalls that go beyond the rights of Saudi women are often overlooked.

Wider institutional shortfalls that go beyond the rights of Saudi women are often overlooked

A broader problem

The ‘kafala’ system is proof of this. Its purpose is to allow Saudi employers to “monitor” their workers entry and exit to and from the country, allegedly securitising the flow of immigration.

However, the kafala system puts workers at threat, leaving them in vulnerable situations they cannot get out of. A lot of the time, they are subject to inhumane treatment from their employers and are left unable to defend themselves as their future in the country effectively relies on their abuser.

Non-Saudi women who are forced to adhere to the kafala system are often to being victims of psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

This is the case for hundreds of Bangladeshi women who have been forced to live in overcrowded camps in the Bangladeshi embassy in Riyadh after experiencing “torture” at the hands of their employers.

Some have even taken their abuse to social media, with one woman snapchatting her interrogation of domestic workers in Saudi households.

The interrogator is invited into households in which employers believe the domestic worker is a witch that has performed “black magic” on the household, is using her phone to contact other domestic workers, or has lied about her religion.

When the Snapchat account gained fame inside Saudi Arabia, many Saudis reacted furiously and called for justice to be served – however, as long as the kafala system itself is not abolished, abuses against working class non-Saudi women will continue.

Even campaigns, such as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen have been criticised for being phrased in a racist and insensitive way, by erasing the connotations of slavery.

It is naïve to believe the women’s rights situation in Saudi can be remedied with reforms to the current laws in place. It must be understood that the only way forward is to abolish oppressive laws, which is impossible to do so without addressing the systematic classism and racism.

Follow Diana Alghoul on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh

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.