Theresa May piggybacks on scraps of Saudi reform. Male guardianship must end now

Theresa May piggybacks on scraps of Saudi reform. Male guardianship must end now
Comment: Rather than celebrating Mohammed bin Salman's baby step reforms, Theresa May should amplify the voices of Saudi women calling for the abolition of male guardianship, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
6 min read
06 Mar, 2018
Mohammed bin Salman will arrive in London on 7 March [Anadolu]
This Wednesday Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, begins his two-day state visit to Great Britain. 

It will be his first since assuming the role in 2017 and since introducing a series of domestic reforms, notably legalisation allowing women to drive, pegged to come into effect this June. 

The crown prince will meet with British prime minister, Theresa May, who has hailed the visit as an exercise in "strengthening our relationships around the world and standing up for our values". She has promised to talk "frankly and constructively" about areas of concern "such as regional security and the conflict and humanitarian situation in Yemen".

But Britain's role in this visit is less altruistic moral compass, and more Brexit-fuelled trade desperation.

The truth is that superficial reforms provide a convenient ethical cover while Britain continues shaking Saudi hands in weapons trade deals, and while remaining silent on the grave human rights violations faced by, thousands of Yemenis, by Saudi women and by imprisoned dissidents, such as blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after attempting to set up an advocacy group that diverged from state opinions. 

So, no, Theresa May, the Saudi royal state visit is not about "standing up for our values". 

One of the crown prince's first acts as defence minister was to launch a military campaign in Yemen, which has deteriorated the state of what was already the Arab world's poorest country.

In the three years since, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the campaign have been accused of human rights abuses, and the United Nations has accused them of failing to take adequate precautions to prevent the loss of life.

Britain's role in this visit is less altruistic moral compass, and more Brexit-fuelled trade desperation

The war in Yemen has also triggered the world's worst humanitarian crisis and a devastating cholera epidemic. The UN has warned that Yemen is on the verge of famine

And what does Britain do to stand up for our values?

Well, we send billions of dollars worth of arms, including advanced munitions and Typhoon fighter jets. Theresa May is not about to have frank, constructive discussions about the crisis in Yemen, when the bombs are being dropped from above by British fighter jets. All the better to see you with, my dear. 

The Campaign Against Arms Trade has organised a protest to coincide with the crown prince's visit to London on 7 March, which will be supported by War on Want and other rights groups.  

Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT, said, "The UK has armed and supported the terrible war since day one, and there is no doubt that arms sales will be top of the agenda next week. Theresa May is putting the interests of arms dealers above the rights of Yemeni people."

Just days before Saudi Arabia was voted onto the United Nations women's rights commission in 2016, Mariam al-Oteibi, a 30-year-old activist - who had previously been imprisoned for disobedience - fled abusive family members and headed to Riyadh. She was arrested and spent 104 days in jail.

Theresa May has praised recent social reforms; "Saudi Arabia is changing," she said. "We have seen recent decisions to allow women to drive from June this year, a target for women to make up one-third of the Saudi workforce by 2030, and a move to develop sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism."

The crown prince's state visit is facilitated by this new reputation as a moderate reformer, credited with the upcoming legalisation of women drivers and the introduction of cinemas and physical education for girls. Marginal improvements have also been made in employment and access to higher education.

While these are widely celebrated changes that improve the symptoms of restrictions that Saudi women face, they do little to challenge the underlying cause that is guardianship, under which women need the permission of a male guardian – a husband, father, brother or even a son – in order to work, travel abroad, get a passport, marry, access certain healthcare services, or exit prison.

Superficial reforms provide a convenient ethical cover while Britain continues shaking Saudi hands in weapons trade deals

It is bitterly ironic, then, that the crown prince's state visit will coincide with this year's International Women's Day. While Saudi women have campaigned for years for an end to guardianship, Theresa May piggybacks on the scraps of reform, pointing to them as a sign of a fruitful and moral relationship. 

Read more: The fight for women's rights in the Middle East

Last April, 24-year-old Dina Ali Lasloom was forcibly returned to Riyadh while in transit in the Philippines after attempting to flee to Australia. Her current whereabouts in Saudi Arabia is unconfirmed, with conflicting sources stating she is in a detention facility, with her family, or in a shelter.

In 2016, Saudi rights activist Hala al-Dosari drafted a petition to King Salman - the crown prince's father - urging him to consider the damaging effect that the custodianship law has on the country's women.

The guardianship system relegates women to second class citizens

Amassing 15,000 signatures, al-Dosari explained that the petition "called on the king to enforce regulations and measures to allow women to obtain all forms of identification cards, take advantage of all educational and professional opportunities, choose a place of residence, travel, obtain any form of medical or emergency service, have access to services from private or public institutions, get release from prisons, rehabilitation or correctional facilities or apply for jobs anywhere without a guardian's permission."

While the guardianship system remains intact, men will continue to exercise and abuse their control over female relatives' lives. In a 2009 report, the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women, Yakin Erturk, attributed violence against women to the male-guardianship system which limited a woman's ability to escape or report violence.

Erturk report states that "The extent of domestic violence in Saudi Arabia is difficult to assess because of constraints on reporting and the lack of data… a counselling centre in one of the major Saudi cities receives on average 50 complaints of domestic violence and child abuse per month, and could take more, had they the human resources to do so.

Women, activists and Yemenis are just the collateral damage who are worth the sacrifice

The rapporteur conceded that although there is no legal obstacle preventing women from reporting abuse, anecdotally and socially, women are often prevented from doing so because healthcare workers, police, or the complainant themselves believed that they need the authorisation of their guardians. 

The guardianship system relegates women to second class citizens. Rather than celebrating the baby steps of reform, Theresa May should amplify the voices of Saudi women who call for its abolition. Until she does, she's just the wolf in grandmother's clothing, swearing to Little Red that she's on your side.

We should be under no illusions about Downing Street's motives in the upcoming Saudi state visit. It is not about "standing up for our values", about talking "frankly and constructively" about the British-backed bombing of Yemen, or about addressing legislation that represses women and imprisons dissidents.

This state visit is about ensuring Britain's commercial standing is maintained post-Brexit, and women, activists and Yemenis are just the collateral damage who are worth the sacrifice. 

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

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.