Thursday 16 October 2008 (17 Shawwal 1429)

      A woman in need of permission
      Abeer Mishkhas | [EMAIL PROTECTED]
      When the Human Rights Watch issued a report earlier this year saying that 
Saudi women live in a perpetual childhood status due to their complete 
dependence on a male guardian, the official response from Saudi Human Rights 
Society was one of condemnation of the "biased" report. Articles were churned 
in the papers accusing the Western human rights bodies of being wrong, 
misinformed and downright wrong.

      I won't go into the report or the defense made here to contradict it. 
I'll just narrate the contents of several conversations I have had in the past 
two weeks. They might give you a better idea of the real situation.

      I'll start with the main case, of Laila who went home for a brief 
vacation, and had to renew her passport. She was told that it was a simple 
procedure and can be done in one day. What she was not told was that the 
applicant should be a man if everything were to be completed in one day! With 
confidence she went to the passport department after making sure to ask her 
oldest brother to go with her. She took all relative documents with her. But as 
soon as she went into the office of the duty official, it became apparent that 
the one-day procedure was not meant for her. She was told, or rather her 
brother was told (as the official chose not to address her) that she couldn't 
renew her passport unless her father came to the passport department to sign on 
the papers as her male guardian. As her father was ill and in no condition to 
undertake such a trip, the brother was supposed to be the guardian for that 
requirement. But it turns out that Leila and her brother were naïve to think 
that things work out according to their logic. She tried to explain to the 
official that she has to travel on time, but the official would not even look 
at her. Instead the official looked at the brother saying, "come back tomorrow 
and see if you can convince the (the head of the department?) and don't bring 
her with you." 

      It became clear to her that her presence was not welcome at all. It is a 
job for men; women have no place there. The ordeal went on for days together. 
The brother became a regular visitor to the department, trying in vain to find 
the office responsible for the renewal, but met with the same demand. If the 
passport is to be renewed, the father has to be brought in. Finally, he took 
his father, ill and frail, on a hot Ramadan morning to the department, only to 
find out that there was no one working that day, although it was a working day. 

      Laila's problem continued for two weeks and was finally resolved by 
pulling some strings. But the father's ordeal continued. Although he was spared 
another trip to the passport department, he had to go to the airport to sign 
another paper stating his approval of his daughter traveling alone.

      During a conversation with a friend of hers who happened to study at the 
same university abroad, Laila found out that her friend has a similar problem, 
but she managed to solve it before coming back home through the Saudi Embassy. 
Why didn't she do the same, I asked her. With a sarcastic smile she said, "my 
friend had her husband doing the paper work. When I called the embassy to 
inquire about renewing my passport I was told that I have to do it from 

      Obviously the male guardian system works abroad too. To add to her sense 
of humiliation, Laila found out that a colleague of her (a man) went to the 
passport department the same day and got his passport renewed in a couple of 
hours. Wish as she may for such treatment, she couldn't have it, for she was 
not a complete citizen. She was a woman who needed permission.

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