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Saudi women raise their voices over male guardianship

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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Saudi male guardianship debated
  • Saudi women can't study, work or travel without permission from male relatives
  • Human Rights Watch criticized Saudi Arabia's male guardianship of women
  • Wajeha Al-Huwaider is one of the most vocal Saudi women's rights activists
  • Not all Saudi women want Al-Huwaider to fight on their behalf

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN) -- In Saudi Arabia, women may seldom be seen, but they are starting to be heard -- especially when it comes to the country's guardianship system.

Laws in the deeply conservative Kingdom are heavily influenced by religious leaders and they dictate that Saudi women can't study, can't work, can't travel, can't even open a bank account without permission from their guardians -- their closest male relatives.

"It gives men total control over women's lives," Wajeha Al-Huwaider, one of Saudi Arabia's most vocal and visible women's rights activists, told CNN. "So they have no right to take any decisions regarding their own affairs."

Saudi Arabia's strict guardianship system has long drawn criticism. A 2008 report from Human Rights Watch stated that "Saudi Arabia's male guardianship of women and policies of sex segregation stop women from enjoying their basic rights."

Al-Huwaider is doing all she can to make sure the guardianship system comes to an end. In June, she wrote an open letter of appeal to U.S. President Barack Obama on the eve of his meeting with Saudi's King Abdullah. In it, she likened women covered by veils in Saudi Arabia to the birds covered with oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Al-Huwaider wrote: "These birds can hardly move. They have no control over their lives and they cannot fly freely to go to a place where they can feel safe. This describes Saudi women's lives. I know that kind of pain. I have been living it."

We have to give more freedoms, more rights, more opportunities, job opportunities for women.
--Wajeha Al-Huwaider, women's rights activist

Not all Saudi women, however, want al-Huwaider to be fighting on their behalf. Last year, a group of prominent Saudi women launched a counter campaign called "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me." Thousands signed a petition that expressed dismay "at the efforts of some people who have made liberal demands that don't comply with Islamic law."

Al-Huwaider isn't daunted. She feels many Saudi women support her, but she also believes that most of them are too afraid to do so publicly.

"They have a lot of fear inside them," al-Huwaider said of Saudi women. "You know when you have nothing -- no power, no connections -- and you are always treated as subhuman, it's not easy to just stand up and ask for more rights."

Al-Huwaider views Saudi's King Abdullah as a promoter of women's rights, and while she appreciates the steps he's taken to grant her fellow countrywomen more freedoms, she also says her government needs to do much more.

She also wants to make sure people are aware that it's not just Saudi women living in Saudi Arabia who are impacted by these laws. "You know some Western women think it's only Saudi women's problem," al-Huwaider said. "It's not. It's anyone who comes to this country."

Over recent years, Saudi authorities have talked about modifying or ending the guardianship system and giving women more freedoms -- but the laws are yet to change.

In a deeply conservative country where religious police patrol the cities enforcing gender segregation and their interpretation of Islam, al-Huwaider understands how easy it is to be afraid -- and silent.

"We have to open doors," insists al-Huwaider. "We have to give more freedoms, more rights, more opportunities, job opportunities for women in order to see, you know, they will be pioneers. They will move the society."

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