Editor’s note: The names of the women featured in this report have been changed to protect their identities.
“I’m a dead soul in a living body and I hope that doesn’t happen to my little sister,” Sara, a Saudi woman, tells CNN.
Sara is one of a growing number of Saudi women who are challenging the country’s male guardianship system using social media.
In Saudi Arabia, every woman has a male guardian — often a father or husband, sometimes a brother or son — who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on their behalf.
After speaking to dozens of Saudi women, Human Rights Watch found in July that the system is “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.”
The women are being noticed. The country’s most senior religious authority, at the start of September, the Grand Mufti, called the social media campaign a “crime targeting the Saudi and Muslim society,” and said the guardianship system should stay.
‘Women here are trapped’
“Women here are trapped, they can’t do anything. It depends on your guardian, if he is OK, and if he is a good man he’ll let you work, or let you study, which is a basic right. If he’s not, he’s going to prevent you from that,” said a Saudi woman who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity.
Her comments reflect those of others and the findings of the HRW report. A woman’s fate, regardless of her socioeconomic status, rests in the hands of her guardian, rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make decisions for themselves.
The Saudi government did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
Women are initially under the guardianship of their father, until they marry and guardianship transfers to the husband.
Breaking free from an abusive guardian is very difficult, HRW found. Filing a police complaint against a guardian can be difficult, and on some occasions when a woman went to file a complaint, police called or sent the women back to their guardians.
Guardians must also approve the issuing or renewal of passports, restricting a woman’s ability to travel.
Jana, a Saudi woman who spoke to CNN, was studying outside Saudi Arabia for several years. On a recent visit home her family informed her that she would not be allowed to leave to complete her studies.
“They took my passport from me, they took everything from me, even my documents,” she said.
Salma, a Saudi woman now living in the West and seeking asylum, said she wouldn’t feel safe if she returned home.
“Nobody takes you seriously unless you are male, legally. I can’t do anything no matter how old I am. So if my father doesn’t approve it, it’s not going to happen.”
“I gave up many of my dreams because I know for sure my father won’t approve them. And the system is on his side, so why fight him, right? One of them was being a horse rider and learning the piano. These are simple wishes for a girl living in the West, but in my culture these hobbies are provoking our conservative culture,” she said.
But even thousands of miles away, Salma still feels the impact of the guardianship system. A recent visit to the Saudi embassy to renew her passport required a notarized signature from her father, her guardian. Luckily for her, he obliged, something he wouldn’t have done had he known she was seeking asylum, she said.