Fleeing Gender Apartheid

This week marks a significant milestone for generations of Saudi women who have fought, bravely and tirelessly, for their rights. On Friday, the government issued announced it would allow women to travel and work without the permission of their “male guardians,” as previously required; the end to this portion of the male guardianship law has been a key fight in the women’s rights movement in the Kingdom, and many Saudi women and their allies are enjoying a well-earned moment of celebration.

However, it must be noted that this decision does not acknowledge the years-long struggle of activists and ordinary citizens to advocate for gender equality amidst egregious government crackdowns. Instead, the decree is presented as a top-down, unilateral decision, appropriating praise for the monarchy itself. We should also be wary that such decrees do not guarantee that all women will benefit equally from promised reforms—family members, social circles, employers and service providers often serve as de facto arbiters in the lives of women, and there is still great potential for repression to continue.

And, as always, we must view this latest reform in light of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Crown Prince’s ongoing detention of dissenters and female activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza-al Yousef. We must not allow this real, if belated, gain for women to obscure the Crown Prince’s larger, and more sinister, trajectory.

A group of women Saudi women and girls receive orientation by UNICEF staff upon arriving in Ethiopia. (UNICEF / Creative Commons)

Layla waited until the dead of night on Sept. 18, 2018, before emerging from her bedroom. As she crept through the silent hallway, the sound of her heart was deafening. Downstairs, she slipped on her long black abaya and shouldered a purse containing her most vital possessions: her newly minted passport, which she’d smuggled from her father’s safe, and her official permission to travel, which she’d obtained by impersonating her father online to register with the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

After a few steadying breaths, she unlatched the three locks on the front door and slid into the street to hail a taxi. Moments later, she was bound for the Riyadh Airport and a one-way flight to Germany.

Layla (who prefers we use only her first name to protect her identity) knew her decision to flee would cost her everything. By the time she landed in Germany, her family had reported her to the police, triggering a criminal case against her.

By traveling without her father’s permission, she’d violated Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws, and the authorities’ response was swift. They froze her bank account, which contained her life savings, and suspended her Saudi National Identification account, rendering her effectively stateless. Within 24 hours of escaping her abusive family home, Layla found herself broke, disowned and alone.

“I lost everything in one day,” she says a few months later outside a refugee settlement in Germany. Her voice trembles with still-raw fear. “But only one thing mattered: For the first time, I was free.”

Layla had spent six years planning her escape from her abusive father and his stifling, prison-like home, but it wasn’t until she faced an impending forced marriage that she found the urgency to run. As she fled, she joined the hundreds of Saudi women who seek asylum abroad each year, risking imprisonment and violence to pursue a life outside the kingdom. Some, like Layla, flee domestic abuse or forced marriages, while others simply aspire to a life outside the network of social and legal constraints that define Saudi women as a class similar to children in key aspects of life.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system forms the linchpin to this nexus of control. Under these laws, women remain legal minors throughout their lives and are subject to the will of their male wali (“custodian”) in many crucial respects. As wards of these men, women must have their wali’s permission to obtain a passport, travel, marry or access a variety of other financial, social and even medical services.

“It means for my whole life I will be treated like a child, like less than a whole person,” Fatima, an asylum-seeker from Riyadh who also prefers to use only her first name, says, recalling her life under the wali system. “It means I live the life my father, and then my husband, choose for me, not the life I want.” Women who resist their family’s or guardian’s wishes may be charged for disobedience under the law and be subject to detention.

Saudi Arabia’s legalized gender subordination is often compounded by oppressive cultural practices, wherein a conservative wali may forbid his female charges from seeking work or even socializing with friends, often confining women to the home in the name of religious piety. “It all comes back to what the family is like,” Layla says. “If the father or husband doesn’t want the woman to leave the house, then it doesn’t matter what the laws are. She will be kept like a prisoner in her own home.” Layla says her father forbade her from going out, obsessively locking the doors to their family home and checking constantly to make sure his daughter remained in her room.

In cases of domestic abuse—which Saudi Arabia didn’t outlaw until 2015—women often feel unable to seek help. Despite a recent end to the ban on women drivers, many still do not have access to a car and so, logistically speaking, opportunities to report violence are often scarce. Saudi Arabia passed legislation in 2013 to address domestic abuse but still lacks any effective mechanism to investigate or curtail reported abuse, and authorities routinely side with the abuser, who is often the woman’s guardian.

“My friend was frequently beaten by a husband twice her age,” Fatima says. “I tried to push her to go to the hospital to file a report against her husband, but the hospital workers refused and told her to go to the police.”

These practices stand in direct contradiction to international human rights standards, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000, but conditioned its participation with several reservations, including: “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.” In a 2017 report on Saudi Arabia, CEDAW decried the kingdom’s “lack of comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation” and gender equality, and it called on the country to abolish the male guardianship system. (In a further set of ironies, the country currently sits on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and the U.N. Human Rights Council.)

Even when women like Layla and Fatima manage to escape abroad, they often discover that their liberation is only partial. Some have reported being contacted by Saudi government diplomats, who may attempt to coax or coerce them into returning to their families, as in the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a teenager who was intercepted by Saudi authorities in Thailand while attempting to flee the kingdom. In other cases, the Saudi authorities may interrogate or detain the women’s family members or attempt to extort the asylum-seekers into returning. Cases of disappearances and forced repatriation have also been reported, as in the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, who was intercepted in the Manila International Airport in 2017 and returned to Saudi Arabia. Her current whereabouts remain unconfirmed.

Saudi Arabia’s ongoing oppression of women is all the more striking in light of the regime’s recent claims of reform. At the same time Layla and Fatima were plotting their harrowing escapes, the Western press was celebrating the advent of a young Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman (widely referred to as “MBS”), who had risen to power touting an agenda of dramatic social and economic reforms. Promising to liberalize Saudi society and transform the kingdom into a global investment hub, MBS also actively portrayed himself as an ally of Saudi women. Proclaiming in an interview that women in Saudi Arabia were “absolutely” equal to men, he promised to boost women’s participation in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030. And in September 2017, the royal court announced an end to the country’s notorious ban on women drivers.

Yet even as MBS was hailed as a sign of a new Saudi Arabia, the crown prince was systematically betraying this professed progressivism. Just weeks before the driving ban was lifted, MBS jailed some of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists, many of whom had dedicated years or decades to peaceful advocacy for gender equality. The jailed women remain incommunicado, while multiple reports from human rights groups indicate they have undergone systematic torture and sexual harassment at the hands of their jailers. These abuses have been linked to Saud al-Qahtani, a close aid of MBS, indicating the crown prince is likely aware of, if not culpable for, the mistreatment of the activists. Another detainee, the Shia human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, had been facing a possible death sentence for her activism, which made her the first Saudi woman threatened with execution for nonviolent protest.

In March, 11 women prisoners were brought before a judge in a Riyadh criminal court. They were charged with multiple crimes—including, according to Amnesty International, promoting women’s rights, calling for an end to male guardianship and communicating with the international press, global nonprofit organizations and other activists. Their initial arrests came alongside a wider crackdown on Saudi civil society, during which Saudi officials detained hundreds of citizens, including powerful government ministers and members of MBS’ extended family. At the same time, the crown prince put more and more pressure on the kingdom’s already deferential press to adopt an increasingly pro-government line, driving many, including murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, to leave the country.

For the Trump administration, strategic (as a counterweight to Iran) and economic (billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales) interests are more than enough to outweigh MBS’ escalating human rights abuses—up to and including the grisly assassination of Khashoggi. Early into the investigation of the journalist’s disappearance, Trump leapt to the crown prince’s defense, resisting international outrage and a bipartisan congressional push to sanction the kingdom.

Even as evidence of the Saudi royal family’s culpability mounted, Trump continued to affirm Saudi Arabia— and MBS—as a “spectacular ally.” After the CIA announced it had concluded with “high confidence” that MBS had ordered Khashoggi’s killing, Trump issued an official statement dismissing the findings and pledging to “remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

While past presidents often failed to properly address human rights or the concerns of Saudi women, many argue that the issue has taken a drastic turn for the worse under the current administration. “There is literally no advocacy by senior Trump officials on human rights anywhere in the Middle East, except Iran,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It gives the governments in the region a message that they can repress with impunity.”

Saudi human rights activist and scholar Hala al-Dosari agrees and adds that the ongoing U.S. support of MBS is a serious obstacle to genuine reform. “As long as he knows he has world powers backing him, especially men like Trump and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, he’ll take it as permission to continue his oppressive policies,” she says.

On the other hand, she notes, a significant push from the United States and other influential nations could have a profound effect. “MBS sees the Western audience as his main constituency. He wants to be accepted as an ally, and cares more about their opinion than his own people’s. At this point, our hope is in the international community.”

In the past, some Congress members and State Department officials have sought channels outside the White House to raise the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia. When she led the State Department, former Secretary Madeleine Albright established an office for women’s issues, calling out violations of women’s human rights as “criminal not cultural.” Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would later establish the International Women of Courage Award in 2007 and Saudi physician Samia al-Amoudi was one of its first recipients. (Samar Badawi, another Saudi woman who received the award, was jailed by MBS in 2018 and remains in prison.) In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Saudi women’s rights activists who rallied for the right to drive. “What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,” she said.

More recently, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a new member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, outlined her priorities on the committee, citing in a press release the need “to rein in arms sales to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia.” In February, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a longtime advocate for women’s rights, joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2019. The bill calls for a partial cessation in arms sales and sanctions against persons involved in human rights abuses, among other measures. The House passed a similar bill on Feb. 13.

That same day, a bipartisan coalition in the House introduced a resolution specifically condemning Saudi Arabia’s ongoing detention and alleged abuse of women’s rights activists. “These brave champions should not be targeted and punished for advocating for their rights and empowering women and girls,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). She and her cosponsors called for the immediate and unconditional release of the women and urged the U.S. government to impose financial and travel restrictions on those responsible for their abuse. This House bill was unique in its focus on the plight of Saudi women prisoners, whose cases had been overshadowed for months, first by U.S. economic interests in Saudi Arabia and then by the global furor over Khashoggi’s murder.

Such marginalization of women’s issues is a lamentable pattern in U.S. foreign policy, says Melanne Verveer, former U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues. “Unfortunately, there is still a failure by many to recognize a commitment to women’s rights is a commitment to human rights and critical to every nation’s development and stability.”

On the issue of Saudi women’s rights in particular, Verveer, who now directs the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, says the
U.S. has often fallen short of its own values. “We’ve historically done a poor job of incorporating human rights in our agenda towards Saudi Arabia, but on the issue of women’s rights in particular there’s been deafening silence.” Verveer cites the Trump administration’s silence on the imprisonment and torture of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, as well as the systematic abuse enshrined by the male guardianship laws. “There are horrors being perpetrated,” she says. “We have to send a strong message that we cannot continue business as usual. We stand for more. We value human rights and democratic values.”

Verveer adds that while she believes that censuring Saudi Arabia, whether through sanctions or other means, is “the right thing to do,” the U.S. can engage in productive bilateral relations at the same time. “Women are often the canary in the coal mine. In places where women’s rights are denied, you’re likely to see many other negative outcomes, like instability and authoritarianism.” Verveer points to a U.N. Development Program study on gender justice in the Arab States region published in December 2018. The study, which examined the position of women in a variety of social and legal categories, scored Saudi Arabia poorly in areas such as constitutional protections, child marriage, reproductive rights and labor rights. Verveer says such indicators should be taken seriously by the Saudi and
U.S. governments alike. “When women are held back, entire societies are held back. We need to make this a strategic issue.”

The past decades have brought some institutional progress on this front. In 1995, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women, declaring his intention to put women’s rights “in the mainstream of American foreign policy.” Since then, there has been a significant increase in the number of U.S. policy actions related to women’s empowerment: from 12 actions in the final two years of the Clinton administration to 151 in 2011 alone. That same year, President Barack Obama released a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, emphasizing the need to include women in peace negotiations and security policymaking.

“So much comes back to leadership,” Verveer says. “We need more women at every decision-making level. We have a long way to go.”

While U.S. foreign policy does have the potential to influence Saudi leadership, Saudi women have been taking matters into their own hands for decades. Aside from the hundreds like Layla, Fatima and al-Qunun who have courageously sought escape, countless others have resisted Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid from within. For more than half a century, women have been active participants in the country’s tenacious, if marginalized, movements for civil discourse and reform, with some hosting salons where activists could gather. In academia, professors like Hatoon al-Fassi (imprisoned by Saudi authorities in 2018) and Samia al-Amoudi have done much to push issues of gender into fields such as history and medicine.

In the 1990s, dozens of women took to the streets in Riyadh to call for the right to drive. All were arrested; many were placed under travel bans and many more still suffer personal and professional stigmatization. Over the intervening years, the movement slowly grew, with more women attempting similar demonstrations and facing similar consequences. The advent of Twitter brought new possibilities for organizing, as women, often held back by legal and physical barriers to assembly, began to meet one another online. “The obstacles women faced in their activism was really unbelievable,” says al-Dosari, the Saudi scholar and activist. “The greatest one was probably the inability to assemble together, to discuss, grow and support one another. Social media opened up a new space, if a limited one.”

Campaigns emerged, including #IAmMyOwnGuardian, which pressed for an end to the guardianship system, and the Baladi Initiative, which called for a greater role for women in Saudi society, including political representation. In 2015, women won the right to run and vote in local municipal elections—considered by some to be a largely symbolic victory in the absolute monarchy, but a heartening development for the dogged organizers. The next year, activists generated a petition with more than 14,000 signatures calling for an end to male guardianship, which Aziza al-Yousef, currently imprisoned by MBS, delivered personally to the royal court.

In 2019, such activism inside the kingdom is rare. The arrest of many key figures in the women’s and civil rights movements has sent a deep chill through the country’s activist and reformist communities. Some advocates fear even mild talk of reform could trigger charges of treason, driving many organizers into silence or self-exile abroad.

“Right now, the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia is really crippled,” says al-Dosari, who now resides in the U.S. “MBS has locked up the lead organizers as well as ordinary women, and everyone is terrified that they could become a target, no matter how careful they are.” Yet al-Dosari says she maintains hope for her country: “I believe in people—I believe in women. Just look at how much they’ve overcome over the decades.”

Like many Saudi women, al-Dosari rejects the argument that oppressive policies like the guardianship system are reflections of genuine Saudi culture: “It’s a creation of those who want control,” she says. “If the Saudi government really wanted to protect ‘culture,’ they’d stop locking up the activists who want to speak for the people.”

Still, this claim remains a popular justification for apologists of the patriarchy. In 2018, MBS defended male guardianship laws in an interview with The Atlantic. “Saudis don’t want to lose their identity,” he explained. “There are a lot of conservative families in Saudi Arabia… Some families like to have authority over their members.” Abolishing the guardianship system, he said, would lead to “problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters.”

In the meantime, “daughters” like Layla, Fatima and al-Qunun who find themselves in this position continue to face an excruciating choice: await their rights at the mercy of the patriarchal figures in their lives or undertake the dangerous and uncertain project of escape.

“I know I am one of the lucky ones,” Layla says. “Many women I know are still trapped by their families and by these laws. For them, it’s like living in slavery.” Since arriving in Germany, Layla has struggled to gain her footing in the asylum system, and she deals with anxiety as a result of her past trauma.

“It is hard for us,” she says of women asylees, most of whom, like her, have been cut off from their families and past lives. “But for some of us, there was no choice. But I think I do have hope. I have hope the future could be beautiful.”


This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Ms.

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Sarah Aziza is a New York-based writer who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Jordan, South Africa and the West Bank.