No Longer Optional, Travel by Saudi Women Triggers Text to Male Guardian

BY Larisa Epatko  December 3, 2012 at 12:30 PM EDT

Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran spoke to Hari Sreenivasan about a new electronic alert in Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.

An aspect of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system has become mandatory. Men now receive a text message every time a dependent, including a woman or child, leave the country.

Opponents called it an intrusion of privacy, and some even likened it to “slavery.” But some regional observers said the furor would pass if efforts weren’t undertaken to address the more deep-rooted causes of male guardianship.

The electronic system isn’t new — it’s been around since 2010 — but two things have changed. It wasn’t as widely used two years ago, and it’s become compulsory, Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi journalist and blogger, told Hari Sreenivasan from the eastern city of Hofuf.

“The main thing about this issue that makes a lot of women outraged is that it is reinforcing the male control over their lives,” said Al Omran. And it’s not the electronic system of travel itself that’s the problem, he continued, “it is the fact that the government is enforcing the male guardianship rules on everyone including those of us who do not believe in the system.”

The Saudi Interior Ministry implemented the electronic system as part of its e-government initiatives, and some people like the convenience, Al Omran said. It saves women a trip to the passport office, where they used to get a “yellow slip” of paper showing their permission to leave, which they would need to go back and renew each time it expired. Now, they can get the same approval and renew it online at their home computer.

Nonetheless, the text message alerts have renewed the debate over the male guardianship system, just like the driving protests did last year.

Saudi women outside a shopping mall in Riyadh. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images.

Manal Omar, who specializes in gender and peacebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said guardianship of women is rooted in Islamic Sharia law, and Saudi Arabia tends to interpret the law in a more monolithic and strict way. If change were to occur, it would have to happen at that more fundamental level, said Omar.

Those who are looking for change could work with religious institutions, but also focus their efforts on creating a public awareness campaign that prompts people to ask about the root of the law and why it’s in place, she said.

In the past, keeping women safe on the journey meant having a male chaperone along on the trip, but safety no longer is tied to traveling with a man, said Omar. “So I think bringing [the entire system] to a public debate would really help women beyond this one issue,” and it would address women in driving, elections and public affairs, she said. “It’s almost a whole renaissance that needs to take place.”

The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington did not respond to the PBS NewsHour’s repeated requests for comment on this story.

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