The case of Rahaf Alqunun, which has exploded on social media and made headlines around the world, has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict guardianship system.
It means woman are legally controlled by a male relative who make a range of decisions on their behalf — including granting permission for a Saudi woman to work, marry, and travel.
But human rights groups have called for the system to be abolished, saying it can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.
In Ms Alqunun’s case, she says she was forced to flee the country and barricade herself in a Bangkok airport hotel for fear she would be harmed or killed by her family for renouncing Islam.
“What you’re seeing in Rahaf’s case, for example, is she has said her family has been violent towards her, that she was beaten and locked up in her room simply for cutting her hair,” Egyptian-born feminist writer and academic Mona Eltahawy told ABC’s PM program.
“Now what does a Saudi woman do in that situation under the guardianship system?
“It’s very difficult for her to leave her home, it’s very difficult for her to get legal redress.”
But why is it so hard for women to leave? We asked Ms Eltahawy to explain how the guardianship system works and its impact on Saudi women.
What does the law say?
The system of male guardianship is still very much in place in Saudi Arabia and means every woman passes from the control of one male legal guardian to another from childhood to adulthood.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has tried to limit its scope and the kingdom has granted women greater rights in recent years — including the right to drive, run and vote in local elections and play sports in school.
But the reforms have been limited and Ms Eltahawy said Mohammed Bin Salman, who she called the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia, “is definitely no emancipator of women”.
“I think that he has, unfortunately, been able to fool many of Saudi Arabia’s western allies and many western media … wanting to say he is emancipating [women].
“He is not … in the same way that South Africa used racial apartheid, Saudi Arabia uses the guardianship system as a form of gender apartheid.”
Who can be a woman’s guardian?
Guardians are male relatives, usually a husband, father or uncle, but in some circumstances a brother or a son can even become his mother’s guardian.
“Now this could be a grown woman, a professor, who needs her teenaged son’s permission if his older male relatives are dead,” Ms Eltahawy said.
“The guardianship system basically renders women and girls from birth to death perpetual minors.”
What do woman need permission to do?
Women need a guardian’s permission for things like travelling abroad, marrying or leaving jail, and in some cases, working or receiving medical care.
They also struggle to conduct the business of their everyday life without a male relative — including registering to vote, renting an apartment, and filing legal claims.
A Human Rights Watch report on the system in 2016 found some guardians have even conditioned their consent for women to work or to travel “on her paying him large sums of money”.
So how does this impact women?
Ben Rich, a lecturer in international relations and Middle East politics at Curtin University, says despite a recent focus on emerging women’s rights in the country, “women still remain extremely in the place of second-class citizenry”.
“Much of [women’s] legal and economic autonomy is still captured under the guardianship laws, in which they need to have a male guardian — be that their father, their husband, or even in some cases their son — make important legal decisions that they have no ability over,” he said.
“[Alqunun’s case] is a real demonstration of that.
“Her claims that she’s been abused physically and mentally is not particularly unexpected under those types of conditions.“
So what happens to women who flee or speak out?
Those who decide to speak out can be put in jail or condemned publicly.
“There are 17 feminists in Saudi prisons who clearly show us the dangers of being feminists and human rights activists,” Ms Eltahawy said.
She says the Crown Prince wants to tell Saudi Arabians that activism doesn’t work and instead wants people to think that what the regime gives is what works.
“The Saudi regime is terrified the guardianship system could in any way be attacked or called into question by these activists,” she said.
“So what that says for the future of activism in Saudi Arabia is that we must pay attention to these activists in prison because we have heard that they have been tortured.”
Meanwhile, Saudi females who flee their families are almost always running away from abusive male relatives, often a father or brother in fear they could be killed after publicly denouncing the faith or publicising their identities online.
According to the Associated Press, there are no public statistics available for how many Saudi women try to flee abroad each year, but recent statistics show an estimated 577 Saudi women tried to flee their homes within Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters the desire for women to escape these “awful situations” is understandable, but also dangerous.
Experts say cases where women have fled have ended badly, with some women disappearing after being forcibly returned to their countries.
Others are jailed for violating so-called obedience laws and only a male guardian can sign for their release, while some have become destitute or trapped in legal limbo.
In extreme instances, some have been found dead.
So is Ms Alqunun still at risk?
Ms Eltahawy said many Saudis have openly expressed some concern for her situation and are very worried about her.
“And it’s not just because, for now, she’s gained a reprieve from being deported and repatriated, but also more troublingly her father is a powerful man,” she said.
“It’s come to light that her father is a governor of a province in Saudi Arabia, which means that he is connected to the highest powers of that kingdom and that means he has a lot of muscle behind him.
“So yes, they can try to find her.”
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