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Feminist Clemency

In Saudi Arabia, women have very few rights compared to male citizens. As a result of the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, women are under a man’s control their entire life, treating women as permanent legal minors. Typically this man is their husband or father, but their brother or even their son can be their guardian. Under this guardianship, women have no freedom to get a passport or travel outside the country without their guardians’ approval, which makes it extremely difficult for them to leave unsafe environments. Women have to obtain their guardians’ permission to marry, and there is no minimum marriage age in Saudi Arabia, leading to reports of girls as young as 8 marrying. There are no formal requirements that employers receive guardian permission before employing women, but there is also no penalty for seeking such permission. Strict sex segregation laws, such as requiring separate offices for male and female workers and strict dress codes for female workers disincentivize employers from hiring women. Similarly, hospitals, while not required to receive consent from guardians, also receive no penalty for doing so. This keeps women from being offered medical treatment and even being admitted to the hospital. Men do not need a reason to divorce their wives, whereas women must either attempt a khul’ divorce, where they are required to pay back their entire dowry, or a fault-based divorce. Fault-based divorces are difficult to obtain since they require the women to be able to prove mistreatment and that the judge agrees that it’s mistreatment.

In addition, throughout divorce hearings, a woman’s husband remains her guardian, with the ability to control her decisions. Women have no right to legal guardianship of their children. Girls are normally transferred to their father’s custody at age 7, while boys can choose which parent they wish to live with at age 9. As of 2014, children are ordered to live with their mothers following a divorce, and she can register them in school, take them to healthcare centers, and obtain their identity documents. Fathers still have the right to grant travel permissions for their children and authorize their daughter’s marriages. Women are only allowed to leave shelters and prisons with the permission of a male relative, which can result in prolonged jail time if their relative refuses to release them. Women are unable to receive state scholarships for study abroad without guardian approval, and although it’s not often enforced, are required to have a male relative accompany them.

In recent years, authorities have begun a hard crackdown on human rights activists. In 2018, this crackdown extended to women’s rights activists who have fought for the end of the male guardianship system. On May 15, authorities began to arrest prominent women’s rights activists and accused many of them of crimes such as treason, which seem to be related to their activism. In November 2018, at least 10 of the women detained remain without charge. Some of the anticipated charges could result in 20 years in prison. Also in November, there were reports of Saudi interrogators torturing at least 4 of the women with electric shocks, whipping their thighs, as well as sexual harassment and assult. At least 5 of these activists are still in prison today, almost 3 years later. Ahead of the upcoming G20 summit, which they are hosting, Saudi Arabia is considering granting the activists clemency. However, as of November 10, 11 days before the summit, authorities still hadn’t released the women, even though they still haven’t been charged with any crimes


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There's always more to learn. Stay curious and check out these links!

Human Rights Watch March 1st: Women's Rights Activists Charged
Human Rights Watch August 22nd: Women's Travel Restrictions Lifted
Aljazeera November 29th: Saudi Women Detained For Demanding Rights
Human Rights Watch November 19th: Hold Saudi Arabia Accountable for its Faults