Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Loujayn Alhokail: Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia

Last fall, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Adelina Iftene kicked off what I hoped would be a series of guest posts featuring the work of  graduate and postdoctoral scholars at Osgoode who are engaging with feminist perspectives  (see Adelina’s post here).  In this second guest post, I’m very pleased to introduce PhD student Loujayn Alhokail, who studies the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia through a lens of legal consciousness.


Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia it is legally required that Saudi women, of all ages, must have male guardians. Under this legal rule, women are not allowed to travel, continue their education, or have access to certain medical procedures without the consent of their male guardians. Theoretically, women are allowed to have access to most of their other rights that are recognized by the state. However, in reality, the guardianship rule is one part of a multi layered system of laws, policies, and traditions that, combined, puts most of women’s legally recognized rights under the discretion of their male guardians. Such system includes policies such as the ban on women’s driving and gender segregation.

The male guardianship system is historically supported by traditional interpretations of Islamic texts that Saudi Arabia recognizes. Saudi Arabia, as an Islamic state, gains its political legitimacy from enforcing Islamic law, and thus, according to traditional interpretations, enforcing male guardianship over women. The reality is that the male guardianship system is based on very narrow interpretations of Islamic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the male guardianship system causes many negative effects for women. Some Saudi women are unable to access some of their basic Islamic law rights that are recognized by the state because of cultural obstacles that are supported by this system. Such rights include access to marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

Witnessing some of the recent changes that the Saudi state is leading in favor of women’s rights, and observing how the state is limited in its ability to enforce fundamental changes in favor of Saudi women’s rights, have encouraged me to analyze some of the historical and socio-political reasons underlying women’s disadvantaged status in the Kingdom. My current research focuses on the cultural context that leads to normalizing and legitimizing the male guardianship system through a legal consciousness lens. Most Saudi citizens shape their legal consciousness under a culture that explicitly supports the existence of the male guardianship system. In this research, I am particularly interested in the individual experiences that have shaped the legal consciousness of citizens who recognize the negative effects of this system. By analyzing these experiences, I am hoping to move the male guardianship system debate forward while aiming to unblock social change in favour of Saudi women’s rights.

Loujayn Alhokail 

I am currently a Ph.D. student at Osgoode Hall Law, York University. I earned my law degree from King Saud University, Saudi Arabia. I have since then completed my LL.M. in law at Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University where my Thesis looked at the use of marriage contracts to hasten the wheel of change in favor of Saudi women’s rights. I am hoping to use the knowledge that I gain in Canada to help strengthen legal education in Saudi Arabia.



Saudi women's resistance to driving bans

twitter avatar of @october26drivingThis October 26 will be another day of protest for Saudi women pressing for the right to drive.

The history of these protests goes back to at least 1990 (see wikipedia’s  roundup here).  This article sets up this year’s protests with interviews with the women who participated in and were punished for the 1990 protests.

There is no specific law to prevent women from driving in the kingdom, but they cannot apply for driving licences and have previously been arrested on charges relating to public order or political protest after getting behind the wheel. (see here)

The protests include a variety of social media moves – posting videos of women driving (see also here) a website (apparently blocked in Saudi after more than 12000 supported it) and twitter.

Here is the mission statement from the website:

 The October 26th movement is a grass-root campaign by the women and men of Saudi Arabia. Its aim is to revive the demand to lift the ban on women driving. The campaign has no anti-Islamic or political agenda for neither Islam nor the official laws of Saudi prohibit women from driving. Islam and the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia both ensure that all, regardless of gender, have the right to freedom of movement. King Abdullah has also stated that the ban is only societal.

Hence this campaign was started to urge the government to issue an official decree lifting the ban.

In addition, three female members of the Shoura Council (aka Shura council, Majles al-Shura) requested that the consultative, appointed-by-the-King body consider the question of women driving – but the Council was too busy for such trivia (see one response to that, here).

The issue is politically quite complicated – a complication not always well represented in the Western press.  If you were amused by the Saudi cleric who declared the ban necessary to prevent ovarian damage, consider what Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed (now visiting at the Middle East Centre at LSE has to say about it:

The image of the reformist old king has so far rested comfortably with that of the conservative bearded cleric. This duality unfolds best in gender matters and serves to perpetuate the myth about progressive royalty against backward Wahhabi-Salafist clerics,

Yet, this myth may not hold for long despite all efforts to keep it intact. Neither the reformist king nor the conservative cleric is truly concerned with changing the status quo in fundamental ways that empower women as equal citizens. In fact, both work in ways that perpetuate masculine domination. Both the king and the clerics endeavor to free women from private patriarchy within the family only to place them under the public authority of the religious scholars and state institutions.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/saudi-women-drive-viral-video-cleric.html#ixzz2iNu9pauU 

 Dr. Al-Rasheed recently published  A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia (CUP) and you can hear her discussing the book here via LSE’s podcast system.

In another context, she has written:;

Like other women in the Arab and Muslim world, Saudi women remain weak in Saudi Arabia. They bargain with a patriarchal system that continues to marginalise them. Some call upon the state to protect them, very much like the Nail Polish Girl, who reminded the Haya agents of the king’s orders not to harass people in the streets. Similarly, cosmopolitan, educated and connected women appeal to the state to implement international treaties on gender equality. A third group of women find refuge in the Islamic tradition as a framework for defining their rights and responsibilities.

As long as Saudi women remain unorganised and pushed by an authoritarian state to isolate their struggle for gender equality from other national struggles calling for democratisation, political participation and civil and political rights, we will see individual cases of defiance that are sporadic, uncoordinated and counter-productive. A time will come when women realize that their demand for more rights are part and parcel of a general need for a shake-up of the Saudi regime. The shake-up needs to be grounded in demands for both personal freedoms and political and civil rights for men and women. Until then, Saudis and the rest of the world will continue to watch YouTube clips of futile disconnected incidents, grounded in sensationalism and imagined heroism.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/imagined-heroism-of-the-saudi-na.html#ixzz2iODN5Jpi


In the spirit of not taking things for granted, and honouring women who do take risks to fight for rights – happy October 26th, everyone.


Law's Slow Violence Guest Post: Usha Natarajan on visibility and changing the deal

As part of the Law’s Slow Violence workshop hosted by Osgoode Hall Law School on June 14 2013 (complete information here or at the bottom of this post), we solicited guest posts from academics attending the workshop and interested in the issues. 

Find the other posts here.


Today, international law specialist Professor Usha Natarajan of the American University in Cairo, where she is assistant professor in the Department of Law and the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, offers us her thoughts.


image of a puddle of dark oilAs aphotograph of Usha Natarajann international lawyer living in Riyadh and Cairo over the past four years, certain passages in Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor had particular resonance for me. Most memorable was Nixon’s quote from Abdallah Tariki, former Director of Petroleum and Mineral Affairs of Saudi Arabia, who said, ‘We are the sons of the Indians who sold Manhattan. We want to change the deal’.[1] There are a number of reasons why someone like me – a postcolonial international lawyer interested in environmental issues – would find such a statement thought provoking: Did Tariki really relate himself so closely with those indigenous peoples, in a remarkable imagined alliance across disparate times, spaces and cultures? What is the deal that he wanted to change? Has he changed it?


We could read various meanings into his statement. My interpretation understands the sale of Manhattan as one where indigenous peoples sold to the colonizers what they desired at a low cost. When the land’s value increased hyperbolically, the original owners were excluded from the benefit. Indeed, the purchase and subsequent development of that land had a role in materially, culturally and symbolically disempowering the indigenous peoples.


Have the Saudis changed this deal? Saudi Arabia is the central cog in an oil industry that, through anti-market mechanisms and monopolies, can sell their product at more than a hundred times the cost of production. Unlike those who sold Manhattan, the Saudis, through possessing a resource desired by the United States, have established a relationship that allows Saudi Arabia to enhance national power and wealth. Some non-western states now play the game of industrialization and capitalism and – by the game’s own measurements – they win. They have, in common parlance, ‘emerged’. In this sense, the deal has changed.


But the Arab uprisings give lie to this claim, reminding us of those who are sacrificed to this narrative. While they may not have articulated it in this way, for many in this region the uprisings were an outpouring of resistance to slow violence. Whether a drought-displaced Syrian farmer forced to move to the nearest city, a fisherman or farmer trying to cope with increasing industrial pollution in the Nile delta, a street-vendor harassed by police in Tunisia, or a Bahraini or Saudi Shia disenfranchised in their own land, for a while they made their everyday sufferings and injustices visible and spectacular. The unthinkable had happened.


Saudi Arabia continues to put down long-standing resistance from Shia inhabitants in its Eastern Province as well as in neighboring Bahrain. While they live on top of most of the oil and gas – indeed they are a majority there – the Shia population remain not only impoverished but despised. The alliance with the United States brought to the Kingdom economic growth, but this alliance is also central to maintaining a rigid monarchy allied to a strict Islamic sect. Saudi society has fissures along many lines, including wealth, gender, religion, and province. But whether rich or poor, man or woman, Sunni or Shia, the commonality is a society deeply traumatized by the strange contradictions of life in an ultracapitalist strict Islamic state, an ultra-Americanized monarchy, unimaginable luxury alongside destitution, the holiest site in Islam overshadowed by the adjacent gigantic 7 star luxury hotel and shopping mall.


Attempts to ‘change the deal’ were rife in the region and throughout the third world in the decolonization era. The New International Economic Order and the doctrine of permanent sovereignty over natural resources were normative efforts to do just that. Nasser, Nehru, Sukarno, Nyerere, and other non-aligned leaders asserted that the resources of the former colonies were no longer available freely: our resources are ours and we set the conditions for access.


But in the Arab region, doctrines such as permanent sovereignty simultaneously helped bolster the power of domestic tyrants. By asserting strong and centralized state control over natural resources – resources that provided the essentials of life such as water, food and energy – post-independence rulers could establish swift control over their populace and territory. Thus, the discourse of resistance put forward by third world international lawyers arguing for a New International Economic Order not only failed, but the very same discourse became a tool of dispossession and profound unsovereignty for most Arab peoples, who did not equitably share in the wealth generated by natural resources.


In the context of the struggle over Arab natural resources, it is difficult to identify an independence moment: a clear postcolonial rupture with past patterns of dependence, subordination and exploitation. As Nixon states, ‘for if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post’.[2] Hence for many, especially the region’s youth, the uprisings felt like independence movements, and in Tunisia and Cairo where leaders were overthrown there was the promise of long-desired postcoloniality.


In this place and at this time the bringing together of two discourses, postcolonialism and environmentalism, as Nixon does, may prove strategic and useful. The discontent underlying the uprisings are linked with environmental issues, natural resource management, unequal access to water, food and energy in the region where inequalities are grotesque (for example, 100 per cent of Kuwaitis have access to electricity compared with 25 per cent in the Sudan), land degradation, desertification, drought, and severe onset of climate change.


Post-revolution regimes have not focused on environmental issues, seeing them as something to be addressed after the important work of elections, constitutionalism and development is done. However, as grassroots movements in other regions have realized, environmental issues are one of the few ways to disrupt dominant economic paradigms, because they can pose a clear and rational challenge to the fundamental assumptions that underpin capitalism and development. Such a discourse is helpful in a region where people are struggling to imagine their way out of the destructive development patterns of the past – a development that bred widespread discontent through multiplying the sites of slow violence.


For an international lawyer participating in this reimagining effort, one of the difficulties is that our discipline’s dominant discourse understands life in a way that makes environmental violence difficult to identify and source, let alone resist. For instance, our understanding of the economy – what it is, what is inside and outside it, what we count and what we discount – has compromised our ability to spot and define an environmental problem and has also circumscribed our ability to offer solutions. How have environmental issues become fragmented, specialized and marginalized within international law? What is our role as lawyers in defining the limits of the economic? And does it matter what we lawyers do? Interestingly, in a region familiar with the complicity of law – domestic and international – in the disempowerment of the masses, Arab peoples still look to the law for salvation in the post-revolutionary moment, asking for constitutional reform, human rights, reform of the judiciary as legal constraints on state power. Law continues to be an important instrument both for those asserting their power and for those resisting it.


Law, lawyers, and our way of understanding life, is an intimate part of the process whereby nature is made ‘abstract in order to extract’.[3] Arundhati Roy describes that, ‘[a]t The Hague I stumble on a denomination, a sub world, whose life’s endeavor was entirely the opposite of mine. For them the whole purpose of language is to mask intent … they breed and prosper in the space that lies between what they say and what they sell’.[4] International lawyers have participated in creating a world inattentive to environmental violence through universalizing particular concepts at particular times. Whether the definition of sovereignty and laws of title to territory, private property and the concept of eminent domain, the development myth feeding the illusion of limitless growth everywhere all the time, or asserting the human as a possessor of inherent rights, each of these international law concepts brings with it underlying assumptions about the natural environment – assumptions that may tie us to perpetuating certain types of slow violence.


Critical international lawyers have focused on retelling the story of law to reveal how it participates in perpetrating or obfuscating slow violence. This is an ongoing project and what is interesting to me, as Nixon relates with regard to his own discipline, is how postcolonial international lawyers – long wary and skeptical of environmentalism – are tentatively approaching environmental issues, as we come to realize that such an engagement is both strategic and indispensable to us if we indeed want to change the deal.

[1] Nixon 68.

[2] Nixon 8.

[3] Nixon 41.

[4] Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (2001) 43 as quoted by Nixon 169.