Male guardianship should be abolished, but not because of Rahaf
Male guardianship over women in Saudi Arabia — or anywhere in the world — is wrong and discriminatory, and all forms of this outdated practice should be abolished.
I say this to make it clear that, while there might still be some conservatives in the Kingdom who agree with such measures, many absolutely do not and are working around the clock to change the status quo.
Most observers would agree that this is a fair and factual assessment of the situation in the Kingdom if we were to take into consideration the massive and rapid changes taking place.
Indeed, ever since the unveiling of Vision 2030, Saudi women have enjoyed unprecedented rights and have been empowered to an extent never seen before in the history of the Kingdom.
Of course, critics would argue — for instance — that the lifting of the ban on women driving (which took place last year) took far too long to implement. However, the counter argument must be that it is definitely a case of “better late than never.” The bottom line is Saudi women today enjoy the same right as their male counterparts to take the wheel and this has solved so many problems for so many women.
Guardianship on women is simply incompatible with where the Vision 2030 aims to take the country
Faisal J. Abbas
Furthermore, any visitor to the Kingdom will definitely notice the visible change in attitude toward the strict conservative dress code that was adhered to previously. While both women and men are expected to be respectfully and modestly dressed, the situation is far more relaxed and women are left to freely decide whether they want to wear the niqab, the hijab or neither.
Women have also been granted the right to work in almost all sectors, and the various forms of segregation in work and public places are being removed.
Critics will rightly bring up the argument that women still have no right to vote, or raise the flag over the female activists who were arrested last year in mysterious circumstances over accusations that they have cooperated with entities or countries hostile to the Kingdom.
Well, the fact of the matter is men don’t have the right to vote either. The Kingdom doesn't have elections to start with and, when it comes to trivial exercises such as local municipality elections, Saudi women can not only vote but run for office too.
As for the legitimate concerns over the circumstances of the arrest and detention of the female activists, we must remember that everyone should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. This is why I regret to see what some of the local Saudi newspapers have done in naming and shaming the accused before a judge has issued a ruling. This was not only unprofessional, but unethical too.
As for the practices of the security forces, if it is proven that they have surpassed their authority or have broken any laws when it comes to the case of the female detainees, then they must — and I am fully confident that they will — face justice, just like what happened with the killers of our late colleague Jamal Khashoggi.
So have women obtained all their rights in the Kingdom? The answer is obviously no — there is still much to be done, for instance when it comes to travel permits.
MOFA should have immediately issued a statement regarding Rahaf saying that this is a family matter, which the government has nothing to do with
Faisal J. Abbas
However, with all the positive and quick social changes taking place, whatever is left of the male guardianship system will be abolished — by default — sooner rather than later.
Such an outdated practice is simply incompatible with where the Vision 2030 aims to take the country. The past few months alone have proved that modern measures, such as the recent anti-harassment law, are far more effective than having members of the infamous — and now defunct — religious police roaming the streets to “promote virtue and prevent vice.”
In recent months, we have reopened cinemas, had mixed mega-events, live concerts and street parties without a single serious incident recorded — this is definitely an achievement and a good indicator.
Yet it is upsetting to see how some anti-Saudi media outlets have politicized the case of runaway teenager Rahaf Al-Qunun. As it turns out, and contrary to earlier reports, Thai authorities denied that Riyadh demanded her return to the Kingdom.
However, the hype over this case was extremely damaging and unfair, not just to the reforms which have taken place in Saudi Arabia, but to Rahaf herself.
After all, she is only 18. I say this with nothing but respect and my sincere wishes that she finds safety and comfort wherever she decides to go. However, it is only fair to argue that, at such a young age, she probably doesn't understand the consequences of living her life as a refugee. Is she equipped to deal with the path she has chosen? Will people who have cheered continue to physically support her once her tweets have stopped trending? I don't know.
I also believe the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) could have handled the case much better. MOFA should not have waited for the Thai authorities to deny the media reports about Riyadh demanding her return. The ministry should have immediately issued a statement saying that this is a family matter, which the government has nothing to do with.
Finally, if there is any guardianship system that should be imposed in the Kingdom, it should be imposed by the ministry on what its diplomats say and do not say — particularly the Saudi charge d'affaires in Thailand. Certainly telling Thai authorities in front of an army of reporters and TV cameras that they should have confiscated Rahaf’s (a Saudi citizen) smartphone is the ultimate faux pas.
- Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas