CAIRO—Year after year, the 42-year-old Saudi surgeon remains single, against her will. Her father keeps turning down marriage proposals, and her hefty salary keeps going directly to his bank account.
The surgeon in the holy city of Medina knows her father, also her male guardian, is violating Islamic law by forcibly keeping her single, a practice known as “adhl.” So she has sued him in court, with questionable success.
Adhl cases reflect the many challenges facing single women in Saudi Arabia. But what has changed is that more women are now coming forward with their cases to the media and the law. Dozens of women have challenged their guardians in court over adhl, and one has even set up a Facebook group for victims of the practice.
The backlash comes as Saudi Arabia has just secured a seat on the governing board of the new United Nation Women’s Rights Council—a move many activists have decried because of the desert kingdom’s poor record on treatment of women. Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar describes male guardianship as “a form of slavery.”
“A Saudi woman can’t even buy a phone without the guardian’s permission,” said al-Hawaidar, who has been banned from writing or appearing on Saudi television networks because of her vocal support of women’s rights. “This law deals with women as juveniles who can’t be in charge of themselves at the same time it gives all powers to men.”
In a recent report by the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, the National Society for Human Rights received 30 cases of adhl this year—almost certainly an undercount. A Facebook group called “enough adhl,” set up by a university professor and adhl victim, estimates the number at closer to 800,000 cases. The group, with 421 members, aims at rallying support for harsher penalties against men who misuse their guardianship.
An estimated 4 million women over the age of 20 are unmarried in the country of 24.6 million. After 20, women are rapidly seen in Saudi society as getting too old to marry, said Sohila Zein el-Abdydeen, a prominent female member of the governmental National Society for Human Rights.
Fathers cite adhl for a variety of reasons—sometimes because a suitor doesn’t belong to the same tribe, or a prominent enough tribe. In other cases, the father wants to keep the allowance that the government gives to single women in poorer families, or cannot afford a dowry.
Islam’s holy book, the Quran, warns Muslim men not to prevent their daughters, sisters or female relatives from getting married, or else they will encourage sexual relations outside marriage. But under Saudi judges’ interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, the crime can be punished by lifting the male guardianship, nothing more.
Hardline judges refuse to go even that far. The founder of the Facebook group, who introduced herself only as Amal Saleh in an interview with Saudi daily Al-Watan, said she set up the group after courts let down adhl victims. She said her family threatened her with “death and torture” when she pressed for her right to get married while she was under 30. She is now 37 and still single.
Some judges even punish the women themselves for rebelling against their fathers. In one high-profile adhl case, a young single mother, Samar Badawi, sued her father and demanded he be stripped of his guardianship. She fled her house in March 2008 and spent around two years in a women’s protection house in Jeddah, waiting for the court ruling.
In April, she got it—she was sentenced to six months in prison for disobedience.
She was released late October, under heavy pressure from local rights group. The judge transferred guardianship to her uncle, and it is not yet clear if her uncle will let her get married.
Badawi refuses to speak to the media after her release, but her lawyer, Waleed Abu Khair, said hardline judges hate the protection shelters because they say the shelters corrupt women.
In Saudi Arabia, no woman can travel, gain admittance to a public hospital or live independently without a “mahram,” or guardian. Men can beat women who don’t obey, with special instructions not to pop the eye, break an arm or leave a mark on their bodies.
In the Saudi public school curriculum, boys are taught how to use their guardianship rights.
“Be jealous, beat her hands, protect her and achieve superiority over her,” reads page 212 of the Prophet Sayings textbook for 11th grade.
The concept of guardianship is interpreted in conservative Islam as meaning that men are superior to women. Moderate Islamic schools of thought, however, see the practice as an order for men to protect women, financially, emotionally and physically.
Radwa Youssef, an activist, said the answer is not to abolish guardianship but to redefine it. Since 2009, she has collected 5,400 signatures for a campaign called “Our Guardians Know Best.” She said many women who go against their male guardians’ will marry the wrong men and bring shame on their families.
“I see guardians as bodyguards who are serving women and protecting them; it is a responsibility, not a source of power,” Youssef said. “If there is a male misusing his powers, he should be introduced to rehabilitation sessions to advise and guide him.”
The Medina Surgeon, as the Saudi media tagged her, has been waiting for justice since 2006.
The surgeon, who has Canadian, British and Saudi certification, filed a lawsuit to drop her father’s mandate. But despite a paper trail carrying testimonies from suitors turned away by her father, bank documents that show her father taking over her salary, medical reports showing physical abuse, and the fact that her four other single sisters over 30 face the same destiny, no ruling has yet been issued.
The only answer she gets from the judge is to go back to her father and seek reconciliation.
“He wants me to go to death,” she told The Associated Press over the phone from Medina, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared family retaliation. “Until when I am going to wait? …The prophet Mohamed himself wouldn’t have allowed adhl to take place.”
The surgeon lives in a “protection house,” one of dozens scattered around the kingdom for victims of adhl and domestic violence. Under a fake name, she gets escorted to courts accompanied by guards, fearing retaliation from her father.
She recalled her last encounter with her father inside the court: “I kissed his feet. I begged him to let me free, for the sake of God.”
She turns 43 next month.