In recent months, international media has reported the flight of a good number of Saudi female youngsters. The number, according to various reports, runs into at least a thousand. The actual number would be much more as many a times families do not report runaways for fear of social stigma.
The case of Rahaf al-Qunun, who was put under UN custody after she fled from Saudi Arabia and was later granted asylum by the Canadian government, raised an important question as to why women are running from Saudi Arabia.
This is most surprising and paradoxical that a time when Saudi Arabia is bringing liberal reforms, relaxing social mores related to women, a large number of women are fleeing the country in search of dignified and free life.
What are the reasons for this emerging paradox?
While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, has initiated a few liberal reforms including allowing women to drive, reopening of cinemas for them and allowing both sexes to attend concerts, watch games in the stadium. Crown Prince has also relaxed laws that required women to have male consent for availing several government services etc. In spite of these changes, women are still suffering under the intermingling of the institutions of patriarchy, religion, state, culture etc.
In Saudi Arabia, women lives are governed by the guardianship or wilaya system. Under this, a woman must have her male guardian's (father, brother, husband or son) permission to obtain a passport, travel abroad or marry.
Permission of a guardian is required when a woman tries to rent an apartment, undergo elective medical procedures, seek a job, or to get married.
The Saudi system is such that even if the woman is tortured, beaten, abused at home by her male relatives she still needs their permission in her daily life. Women can't afford to ignore their male guardian in Saudi Arabia. Running away from an abusive family is a crime, punishable by detention which is enforced by state agencies, and sanctioned by strict religious interpretations of Islamic law.
Dissent is not accepted. A large number of women activists who advocate for women rights are put behind the bars. Several women, ranging from age of 20 to 70, were arrested in June 2018 on suspicion of harming the country’s interests. Their trial is about to begin soon.
At the same time, MBS wants to give an impression that he is the architect of “Liberal restructuring of Saudi Arabia” as contained in his “VISION 2030” without recognising any contribution from any segments including women in the Saudi society.
He is carefully trying to build his image of a visionary leader during the phase of Saudi transition from oil to a non-oil economy.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)
Jyotika Teckchandani teaches at Amity Institute of Social Sciences, Amity University, Uttar Pradesh. Her expertise includes Gender, International Politics, Foreign Policy Analysis, Indian and West Asian Politics.
In Saudi Arabia, women lives are governed by the guardianship or Wilaya system. Under this, a woman must have her male guardian's permission to rent an apartment, undergo elective medical procedures, seek a job, or to get married.