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Saudi Arabia: Women's Rights Promises Broken

Evidence Shows Male Permission Still Being Required for Surgery, Travel


Saudi officials continue to require women to obtain permission from male guardians to conduct their most basic affairs, like traveling or receiving medical care, despite government assertions that no such requirements exist, Human Rights Watch said today. The government made its assertions most recently in June 2009, to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Saudi Al-Watan newspaper reported on July 2 that Saudi doctors have confirmed that Health Ministry regulations still require a woman to obtain permission from her male guardian to undergo elective surgery. In late June, Saudi border guards at the Bahrain crossing refused to allow the renowned women's rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider to leave the country because she did not have her guardian's permission, al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch.

"The Saudi government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "It needs to stop requiring adult women to seek permission from men, not just pretend to stop it."

Human Rights Watch documented in an April 2008 report, Perpetual Minors, the impact of the "guardianship" system, which requires Saudi women to obtain permission from male guardians before they can carry out a host of day-to-day activities, such as education, employment, travel, opening a bank account, or receiving medical care. The report demonstrated the negative consequences for women whose guardians - fathers, husbands, brothers or male children - refused to give such permission. Similarly, the Al-Watan article pointed out the dire situation of women living in discord with husbands who refuse to grant them a divorce.

The government itself has repeatedly denied the existence of such guardianship requirements under Islamic law. Most recently, at its review before the UN Human Rights Council in June, Saudi Arabia stated that any purported Shari'a concept of male guardianship over women is not a legal requirement in the kingdom, and that "Islam guarantees a woman's right to conduct her affairs and enjoy her legal capacity." The Health Ministry specifically denied any requirement for a guardian's permission for women seeking surgery, in response both to Human Rights Watch in March 2008 and, again, to Al-Watan in July 2009.

Evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch and Al-Watan indicates that such permission is a requirement, however. For its 2008 report, Human Rights Watch spoke to four physicians and two women who confirmed the need for a guardian's permission. A clinical psychologist told Human Rights Watch, "If a [pregnant] woman comes in to the hospital with a guardian, then she can leave with anyone, even the driver. If she comes in without a guardian, it becomes a "police case," and she'll need a guardian to come to the hospital in order for her to get discharged. She stays here if no one picks her up." The Al-Watan article cited four doctors, including surgeons, who confirmed the requirement of a male guardian's consent for a woman to undergo surgery.

"Saudi Arabia continues to treat women as perpetual minors by refusing to allow them to make decisions about their own health," said Whitson. "In Saudi Arabia, men get to decide how healthy a woman can be."

It appears that the government also continues to insist that Saudi women obtain a male guardian's permission to travel. Al-Huwaider tested the government's assertion at the Human Rights Council that guardianship was not a legal requirement by travelling to the Saudi-Bahraini border on three separate occasions, on June 25, 26, and 27, without the traditional guardian approval document. However, border guards turned her back each time and prevented her from leaving the kingdom because, they explained, she had no permission from her guardian, Huwaider told Human Rights Watch.

Through its ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2001, Saudi Arabia assumed the obligation to take action to end discrimination against women in all its forms. The convention obliges Saudi Arabia "to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women," including "any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women ... of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

Article 12 of the convention obliges states to "take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning." Article 15(4) obliges states to "accord to men and women the same rights with regard to the law relating to the movement of persons and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile."

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.