Female shoppers wearing traditional Saudi Arabian dress check their smartphones while waiting outside a store at the Kingdom Centre shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 2, 2016. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Last week, an 18-year-old Saudi girl visiting Kuwait with her family snuck to the airport, purchased a ticket and fled from her family. Rahaf Al Qunun, the Saudi girl, was briefly detained at Bangkok airport as she did not have an entry visa to the country. She explained to the authorities there that she was in transit, and on her way to Australia where she intended to seek asylum. The authorities issued her a return ticket the following day.

Fearful that she may be forced to return to her family, she launched an appeal via social media that went viral overnight and grabbed the attention of human rights organisations as well as politicians of several countries. By barricading herself in an airport hotel room and tweeting about her plight she managed to get global attention and support started pouring in from all quarters.

Pressure on the Thai authorities forced them to relent and grant the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to Rahaf to assess her need for international refugee protection. Rahaf had been telling rights groups and the media that she was stopped at Bangkok airport, in transit from Kuwait, and had her passport taken from her. She claimed that she fled her family fearing for her life and had been planning to head to Australia where she hoped to seek asylum.

UNHCR took her under protective custody while her asylum request was being studied by the Australian government. They also stated that their organisation ‘consistently advocates that refugees and asylum-seekers — having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection — cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement’.

This brought to the fore attention and criticism of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws that remain the last vestiges of the shackles that have held women without full control of their being. Changes by the government in recent time have done away with a lot of barriers that Saudi women faced in the past, but this one still remains.

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

Recently, I came to know of a welfare house for women in need of certain household items to alleviate the sufferings of the residents. As I came to know of the pitiful conditions of some of these women, I first wondered how was it possible that what was meant to honour and protect them plunged them into such regrettable circumstances.

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.

Shelter

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. H

omeless and with no options, she turned to the shelter for survival.

Another woman was subjected to the violent beatings of an abusive husband. After constant threats of divorce she was literally discarded 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 is 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 not longer able to work, her family had no use for her and turned her out.

Stripped of dignity and their legitimate rights, these women and others like them have indeed pathetic tales to tell. Where was the protection of these women’s honour and rights? Where are the men of these womenfolk; men who have stripped them of their privileges. Men who flaunt their badges of guardianship, but have discouraged their women to marry someone of their choice, the right to obtain a passport or travel. And yet, these very men are the first to exercise total domination in the form of exclusive guardianship.

How can these men, conditioned by their own traditions, be given such absolute power to rule over the lives of women and place them in such vulnerable conditions, and to dictate with total authority their warped interpretation of male guardianship? Do we really want our mothers, sisters and daughters to fall prey to the abuses of such authority with no legal recourse?

It is time now that the issue of male guardianship is shown the exit door in a genuine effort to grant women their full rights and align their being with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.