News ID: 237134
Published: 0626 GMT January 09, 2019

Saudi Arabia criticized over ‘guardianship’ laws

Saudi Arabia criticized over ‘guardianship’ laws

A Saudi teen's live-tweeted asylum plea has cast a renewed spotlight on women's rights just months after women won the right to drive, and sparked rare criticism of restrictive "guardianship" laws -- from men.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, arrived in Thailand at the weekend after fleeing what she called an abusive family in the deeply conservative kingdom and staved off deportation after her tweets drew global attention.

Qunun's impassioned cry for help set off a media frenzy, prompting angry denunciations and death threats from many in a kingdom where guardianship laws are still widely supported, Presstv Reported.

But the incident sparked a rare online debate as several young Saudis -- including men -- implored authorities to dismantle the guardianship system.

Seen as a form of gender apartheid, the system means Saudi women are often only as free as their male "guardians" -- husband, father and other male relatives -- allow them to be. The men in their lives have to give formal permission for the women to study, get married or even renew their passports.

As tweets by Qunun, now in the care of a UN refugee agency in Thailand, went viral, a new hashtag gained traction in Saudi Arabia: "Drop guardianship or all of us will migrate."

The backlash follows a wide-ranging liberalization drive spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that is aimed at transforming the conservative petro-state, long criticized for its treatment of women.

His reforms include the much-celebrated decision overturning the world's only ban on female motorists last June, allowing women to attend soccer games alongside men and take on jobs that once fell outside the narrow confines of traditional gender roles.

Catalyzed in large measure by what experts call economic pain owing to a drop in oil prices, the reforms have introduced a series of firsts in the Saudi labor market, where women have a miniscule presence.

But while transforming the lives of many women, this reform drive will be cosmetic for many others until the kingdom abolishes a system that gives men arbitrary authority over their female relatives, critics say.

Women's empowerment is a potential social lightning rod in the deeply traditional society of Saudi Arabia.

Officials close to the government say they are seeking to dismantle the system piecemeal to prevent any backlash from arch-conservatives.

Meanwhile, horror stories regularly surface.

Women inmates are often reported to be stuck in prisons after completing their terms because they were not claimed by their guardians.

One Saudi woman told AFP how she was stuck in limbo, unable to even renew her passport, when her father, her only male guardian, slipped into a coma after an accident.

Many Saudis condemned Qunun for what they described as dishonoring her family.

But as she galvanized international support in a Twitter-led campaign, many others voiced solidarity -- especially after the Saudi chargé d'affaires in Bangkok was caught on tape telling Thai authorities they should have confiscated Qunun's cellphone.

"It is challenging for the crown prince to completely dismantle guardianship laws because of religious conservatives who have a vested political interest to remain relevant in a changing Saudi Arabia," said Momani.

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