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Undercovered: We All Have to Live in the Borders of Boxes Our Fathers Draw for Us

Undercovered is our daily feature bringing attention to excellent reporting on women’s issues worldwide, which we feel deserves a larger audience.

Human Rights Watch has published a comprehensive report on the effects of male guardianship on women in Saudi Arabia.

“We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us,” one 25-year-old woman said.

As dozens of Saudi women told Human Rights Watch, the male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country, effectively rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make key decisions for themselves.

Rania, a 34-year-old Saudi woman, said, “We are entrusted with raising the next generation but you can’t trust us with ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Every Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social class, is adversely affected by guardianship policies.

Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, or exit prison. They may be required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare. Women regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims.

The impact these restrictive policies have on a woman’s ability to pursue a career or make life decisions varies, but is largely dependent on the good will of her male guardian. In some cases, men use the authority that the male guardianship system grants them to extort female dependents. Guardians have conditioned their consent for women to work or to travel on her paying him large sums of money.

The HRW notes that while there have been some reforms extending rights to women in the past few years, the effects of male guardianship effectively nullify many of them. 

“Whenever someone tells me, ‘You should have a five-year plan,’ I say I can’t,” Zahra, 25, said. “I’ll have a five-year plan and then my dad would disagree. Why have a plan?”

You can read the complete report from Human Rights Watch here.

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