Saudi women file 'enslaving' petition to challenge sexist law

© Jacquelyn Martin
Following a massive social media campaign, some 14,000 women in Saudi Arabia have filed a petition calling for an end to male guardianship laws that restrict their freedom.

In Saudi Arabia, women must get permission from a male guardian to travel, rent an apartment, receive medical treatment and marry. Many employers require proof of consent in order to hire a woman.

While guardians are often parents or husbands, a woman’s brother or even son can also be in charge of making decisions for them.

The movement gained traction thanks to a social media campaign #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen which trended on Twitter.

One of the demands on the petition is that an age be decided upon which a woman will be treated“like an adult," with the majority of women who signed the petition taking a risk in using their full names.

Saudi King Salman’s royal court was flooded with telegrams from women supporting the campaign on Sunday. The old fashioned form of communication was chosen to show that the urging is coming from within Saudi Arabia, the Wall Street Journal reported, but some telegram operators refused to send them.

"They've made undeniably clear they won't stand to be treated as second-class citizens any longer, and it's high time their government listened," Human Rights Watch researcher Kristine Beckerle said.

Last week Twitter suspended accounts engaged in the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen hashtag, which had begun to trend. The female empowerment non-profit SAFE had its account removed.

The censorship was thought to be a result of Saudi men reporting the accounts as spam. However, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Abdulaziz Alsaud is a major shareholder in Twitter, owning more of a stake than founder Jack Dorsey.

In July, an Arabic hashtag, which translates as “Saudi women want to abolish the guardianship system,” began to trend after Human Rights Watch published a report calling for an end to the guardianship law.

The report highlighted how women can be restricted and even controlled by their guardian's decisions.

Saudi Arabia said it would abolish the guardianship system in 2009 and 2013 following a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) from the United Nations Human Rights Council, but failed to do so.

Aziza Al-Yousef, the activist behind the movement who delivered the petition, says she is not worried about a backlash. The retired computer science professor said, “The message is: women have to be full citizens, like men.”

Over the last decade, the Kingdom has made some small steps to ease its control over women. It criminalized domestic abuse in 2013, but a husband remains his wife’s guardian all through any court proceedings, within a discriminatory justice system.

Late last year, Saudi women were able to vote for the first time, but guardianship law caused issues with proof of residency and identification.

While the country has started to encourage women to enter the workforce, it requires employers to create segregated office spaces and enforce strict dress codes.