Confinement of Saudi princesses a reminder that women are second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia

The ugly reality mocks the image of a nation cited as the citadel of Islam.

The recent claim by King Abdullah’s former wife Alanoud Al Fayez that her daughters are locked up in a compound in Jeddah not only gives us an insight into the House of Saudi royals, but it validates the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are second-class citizens who cannot make any decisions without the approval of a male guardian.

The alleged details of the story reveals that the king has given his sons control over the daughters. They are not allowed any visitors or staff members and they cannot travel abroad. One of them, Hala, has serious mental health problems.

In Saudi Arabia women are treated as minors by the law which means they are unable to make any decision without the permission of their male guardians. The law stands behind any man who may stop a woman from going out of the house to work or get educated. The eldest daughter Princess Sahar, who contacted Channel 4 News reporter Fatima Manji via email, summed up what it means to be a woman and living in Saudi Arabia:

“Women and children (in Saudi Arabia) are abused, while their male guardian enjoy privileges granted by the court in cases of domestic abuse. Princes and the elite entourage are protected and the victims and their families suffer injustice.”

This ugly reality mocks the image of a nation cited as the citadel of Islam. The Guardians (members of the House of Saud) of the two holy cities of Islam are made to appear upholding Islamic principles which preach that men and women are equal before God. But there is no existence of this as a reality in the country.

In a recent ad campaign made ostensibly to highlight violence against women, the government is shown as the ‘good guy’. The campaign sights domestic violence as a social issue which does not require legislation to deter men from violence. It encourages the notion that the responsibility should be in the hands of individuals – men should restrain from abusing women and actions have to be steered to allow women to talk about abuse and go to shelters.

Around 9 million women in Saudi Arabia don’t have the right to drive without the permission of their male custodians. This, despite King Abdullah’s claim that he is a reformist and supporter of human rights. In an interview with ABC News in October 2005, he said, “I believe the day will come when women drive”. However any protest is seen as challenging the existing status-quo. Saudi rulers also heavily rely on the support of the clerics, some of whom believe women damage their ovaries by driving.

Saudi Arabia’s status as a large oil-producing nation means things are unlikely to change any time soon. The high profile foreign dignitaries and diplomats meeting King Abdullah are not likely to raise concerns about the reports from Amnesty International on torture, intolerance and oppression, and Prince Charles will happily perform sword dances and meet the first women members of the Shura. None of this will bring about the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah recently instructed the Saudi health ministry to arrange for surgery to separate a pair of Syrian Siamese twins after a request by their parents. Surely, then, it is not too much to ask for him to consider the plight of his own daughters – and with them, the women of Saudi Arabia.

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