I have been watching the nail-biting case of Rahaf Al-Qunun as it has played out over social media and the international news. The case has rightly brought the guardianship system of Saudi Arabia to the forefront: this is a system that decrees all women, of any age, must have a male guardian from among their family. This guardian is in a position to allow or veto work, travel, marriage, and other activities for the woman. It is an antiquated system that arose out of a centuries-old patriarchy that sought to protect women from the dangers of a tribal society; it has morphed into an anachronism.
In the best-case scenario, most Saudis treat it as only a formality, and the Saudi women I know have blanket permission to live their lives normally. However, in many cases, it becomes a way of entrapping women in abusive situations and of controlling her life. Here in conservative Pakistan, where I live, a woman’s male relatives do exercise a great deal of authority over her, but there is no legal imperative for her to present a signed piece of paper from a man when she wants to travel, study, have surgery, or get married.
Pakistani women have been fortunate to have had a robust women’s rights movement over the decades that Pakistan has been in existence, as well as Muslim Family Laws promulgated in the 1960s that protected many of women’s rights. Pakistani women have fought very hard against the anti-women laws of the 1980s, most notably the Hudood Ordinances, which are now defunct. Still, we are in a dire situation as far as women’s safety and security is in question, but that is because the laws are weakly implemented, not because they do not exist. In Saudi Arabia, not only do progressive, pro-women laws not exist, but conservative influentials in the Kingdom – the clerics, the men of influence, some of the Royal Family – do not see any reason to change.
When I was writing my dystopian novel Before She Sleeps, about an unnamed city in the Middle East, I was portraying exactly this kind of society: one in which women have no choices. Some readers could not understand why the women in my novel could not do anything about the situation they found themselves: as survivors of war and an epidemic that has killed most of their numbers off, they are only bodies to have babies as quickly as possible, with no way to leave the city in which they were trapped. But now with the case of Rahaf Al Qunun brought to light, where her only choice was to leave or die, perhaps they’ll understand that such societies not only can exist, they already do.
It is important to say here, though, that Saudi Arabia is undergoing a process of change, directed by women themselves, working to bring greater rights and empowerment to their sisters. One of the most significant ones is Al-Nahda Philanthropic Organization, which works to bring Saudi women towards a greater participation in society. Its board of directors includes two princesses from the Royal Family; its management team includes Saudi women who graduated from Wellesley, Harvard, and Columbia. This incredible organization operates in four major areas: Career Education, Capacity Development, Financial and Social Support and a Center for Research and Studies. They have disbursed 108 million riyals in aid over the last ten years, and they have undertaken 37 projects for women’s empowerment.
The photographs and stories on the page of Al-Nahda portray women doing things that have never been done before: participating in seminars and conferences, both in Saudi Arabia and overseas, overcoming illiteracy, participating in personal development courses. Don’t be distracted by the fact that the women are in burqas and niqabs, that the success stories only use first names or pseudonyms. Empowerment in Saudi Arabia is tricky, delicate work. Financial independence and education are only part of the story; the women themselves have to be taught to have confidence in themselves as fully capable adults. Sometimes, in countries as harsh on women as ours, it is women’s work behind the scenes, the persistence in the face of daunting opposition, that is the real revolution.
But as I’ve said many times before, feminism looks very different in our countries than it does in yours. We women in these countries are boxed in by many constraints, by men who think of feminism as Western toxicity and by women who have internalized misogyny to the point that they think it is better for women to be constrained than to be free. In countries like this, we have to sometimes submit to the system, then work to change it from within. When the law and society is not on our side, we have to subvert the system, persuade the men around us to be allies, take it inch by inch. For every step forward one can and should expect a backlash.
Rahaf has rejected that slow process wide open with her breathtaking odyssey: it is not easy to defy an entire system and hold fast to one’s freedom, especially for someone as young as her. With the threats to her life coming from her own family members, she did what she had to do to survive. This will have a knock-on effect for many Saudi women who will now harbor hope that they can also gain their freedom by claiming asylum – should they be able to leave the country as Rahaf did. As Bessma Romani, a professor at Waterloo University, wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Even though Saudi women are increasingly highly educated, well-travelled, and hyper-connected to the world, they are stuck in a society that gives them the same rights as children.”
At any rate, I do not envy Saudi women their choice, or lack of it. Like many in the world, I have been amazed by Rahaf’s courage and heartened by Canada’s warm welcome in granting her refugee status. But I also have a great deal of admiration for the women who live under the Saudi guardianship system and do their best to enact change from within. As heart-breaking as it is to be forced to leave just so you can breathe, it is also difficult to stay on and try to find breathing space where hardly any exists. The women of Saudi Arabia, and their male allies, are doing the best they can within the system that still governs them, and for that, they have my solidarity.