Women Are Being Electronically Tagged in Saudi Arabia

Women's rights just seem to keep on getting better over there.

Photo by Retlaw Snellac

A story was published last week about Saudi Arabian authorities introducing technology that electronically tags women by automatically sending texts to their male guardian if they ever try to leave the country. Obviously that would be almost laughable if it wasn't so tragic, but it's not exactly the shock that a lot of people are claiming it to be.

All women in Saudi Arabia already have to answer to a male guardian and aren't allowed to leave the kingdom without their written permission, so this latest example of tyrannical sexism is basically just symptoms of an old system translated into the glaringly transparent light of the electronic world.

I spoke to a female Saudi Arabian sociologist, writer and humanities professor who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of any repercussions. Repercussions like losing her job, for example – all for speaking out about the oppressive conditions humans with vaginas have to live under in Saudi Arabia.

VICE: What's your experience of Saudi Arabia as a woman?
Anon: It's complicated to describe. At times, I think outsiders tend to see it as much worse than it actually is, and other times I wish people would be more vocal about certain issues and violations. The fact of the matter is that many people tend to generalise a lot of things about the kingdom that aren't true. On some occasions I feel better than anywhere in the world in Saudi, on other occasions I feel like I'm being violated and robbed of my rights.

Can you sum up how women are treated?
Well, the Saudi system sees women as permanent minors needing a male in order to accomplish almost anything significant in life: to work, to study, to testify in court, to marry, to drive and to travel, amongst other things. 

So women’s rights are pretty fucked there, basically.
Yeah, even though the struggle for women's rights exists in every nation, Saudi Arabia is still working on the ABCs of women's rights. We might even still be on the letter A, actually. It's frustrating to know that you're just as well qualified – and often more qualified – than the man standing in front of you, but that he ultimately has the power,

So are the authorities really electronically 'tagging' women leaving the country now?
That story came up recently when a Saudi couple went overseas and the husband was surprised to find a text message from immigration services stating that his dependent wife had left the country. Despite what most media has been reporting, though, this is not a new system – it's been an optional service for some time now. 

Dependents – male and female – have always needed a male guardian's permission to travel, this is just an electronic update to that system. It allows the guardian to sign up online rather than going to passport services to get travel permits for dependents. And it doesn't track them, it just sends a text to the guardian when the dependent leaves the country, stating the time and the airport they left from.

That still sounds pretty oppressive to me. What does it mean for women's rights?
The issue here – at best – is that an SMS from the government telling male guardians when their adult female dependents have left is humiliating. The core of this issue, though, is not the electronic system, but the oppressive male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, which too often robs women of their basic rights. The media and international community should not be directing their outrage at the SMS alerts, but at the guardianship system.

Is there much resistance to the guardian culture in Saudi Arabia?
There's a lot of discontent with the guardianship system. It essentially leaves the woman's dreams, pursuits and even basic needs in the control of her male guardian, who has the power to say no to his female dependent and be protected by law.

Is there any protest coming from within the kingdom?
Yeah, there are activists addressing it. Saffaa is a Saudi artist who makes prints and does graffiti that says stuff like "I am my own guardian" and "I do not bargain with patriarchy" and has published articles on the issue. Manal al Sharif also regularly speaks out against the issue and many of the women in the women2drive movement are also speaking out against the guardianship system.

Many Saudi men ridicule the system as well. I think it's widely recognised among the younger generation that the system is ridiculous in many ways, but organisation to combat the issue is very weak. Again, the men hold all significant positions of power in the country, so it would take a strong push from women, with help from males who sympathise with the cause. That is yet to happen, but I'm hoping it will soon. 

Fingers crossed. Thanks, anon.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @RebeccaCFitz

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