Riyadh city skyline
Riyadh city skyline at night. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Last week, the Saudi Crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman or MBS as he is popularly known announced that the kingdom ‘will introduce four key legislations this year as part of its reform measures to reform judicial institutions as well as to improve the legislative environment in the Kingdom.’ “The lack of clear legislation previously has led to a variation in legal provisions,” he said. “This was painful for many individuals and families, especially women, permitting some to evade their responsibilities. This will not take place again once these laws are promulgated pursuant to legislative laws and procedures.”

Noting that the Kingdom had taken serious steps towards developing its legislative environment as of late, an official statement released after his announcement added that “These steps include adopting new laws and reforming existing ones. They are meant to preserve rights, entrench the principles of justice, transparency, protect human rights and achieve comprehensive and sustainable development, which reinforces the global competitiveness of the Kingdom based on procedural and institutional references that are objective and clearly identified,” according to a statement released following his announcement.”

The news was welcomed one and all by the majority of the country’s citizens and residents alike. For them, it meant for the most part that a codified system of laws will put an end to the non-uniform dispensing of justice that was the norm in the past, often based on the whims or the cultural roots of the judges themselves. The new laws go a long way in honouring the role and legal sanctity of women who for decades were being marginalised under archaic male guardianship laws.

The issue of male guardianship was meant to protect and preserve the honour, integrity, and legitimate rights of one’s womenfolk. The reality of honouring this responsibility, as was being exercised in certain segments of our society, was, unfortunately, a bitter contradiction with women being the invariable victims.

An example of some years back came to mind of a welfare house in need of certain household items to alleviate the sufferings of the residents. This particular welfare resident housed over 20 women whose ages ranged between 27 and 55. Among the items much needed were air-conditioners to stave away the summer heat, a freezer to store perishable foodstuff given by charitable individuals, a washing machine to clean the few items of clothing these women possessed, among their other needs.

As I came to know of the pitiful conditions of some of these women, I first wondered that how with the existing male guardianship laws constantly tooted about by our clerics was it possible for some of our own people to plunge into such regrettable circumstances.

And as I delved into the circumstances that forced some of these women into this home, the stories that came out were indeed tragic. In one instance, a middle-aged lady was forced out of her home when her husband remarried a much younger wife. With no family to turn to and no marketable skills, the shelter run by a humanitarian was her only lifeline.

A 27-year-old tribal girl was forced out by her family when she refused to marry the groom of their choice. Again, she was not prepared for the outside world and soon found herself isolated and destitute. Homeless and with no options, she turned to the shelter for survival.

Another woman was subjected to the violent beatings of an abusive husband. Constant threats of divorce eventually led her mate to literally discarding her on the streets to fend for herself. Again, with very little education and no skills, she had nowhere to run to except for the shelter.

And then there was the story of a sickly woman, one who worked all her life turning in all her earnings to her family. She was prevented from entering into marriage for fear her family would lose their only source of income. When she fell sick and was no longer able to work, her family literally had no use for her and turned her out. She was no longer their meal ticket!

Where were the men of these womenfolk; men who had stripped these unfortunate women of their privileges? Men, who flaunted their badges of guardianship, but had discouraged their women from the marriage of their choice or education or the learning of skills, and were the first to exercise total domination in the form of exclusive guardianship.

Stripped of dignity and their legitimate rights, these women and others like them stared at a very bleak future. In a society that was previously guided by judges and clerics with their own brand of male guardianship, the new laws, as announced by the Crown Prince, are a breath of fresh air, and no longer will women have to suffer such abuse.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena