Saudi Arabia: Women under Perpetual Guardianship of Male Relatives

Equality Now

On 17 February 2010, after four years of separation, Fatima Bent Suleiman, Mansour El Timani and their children were finally reunited following a decision by the Supreme Judiciary Council to overturn their forced divorce. Fatima’s marriage had been approved by Fatima’s father in 2003, but after his death her half-brothers petitioned for her divorce on the grounds of her tribal incompatibility with her husband. Fatima believes one reason for this was to enable her half-brothers through legal guardianship to retain control over her inheritance. The couple refused to accept the judgment, was forced to live apart and suffered considerable hardships and trauma. In February 2009, Equality Now issued Women’s Action 31.1 calling on the Saudi Government to end the practice of male guardianship over women and reunite Fatima, Mansour and their children as a family. In September 2009, following months of advocacy, King Abdullah ordered the Saudi Supreme Judiciary Council to re-examine the decision of the General Court of Jof, which had ordered the couple to be forcibly divorced.



Equality Now welcomes the reunification of Fatima, Mansour and their children. However, the Supreme Judicial Council has not yet released a copy of its decision and Equality Now believes that the decision might not apply beyond the case of Fatima and Mansour and if so, would not affect the system of perpetual male guardianship of Saudi women. In our Women’s Action, we also highlighted the cases of R.A.E and Um Rimas who were each forcibly divorced from their husbands at the behest of their respective fathers on the basis of their tribal incompatibility with their respective husbands. To our knowledge, these cases remain unresolved.

All these cases are examples of the widespread system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. As a result of this system, women are vulnerable to a wide range of discrimination in both private and public life and have limited decision-making authority and freedom of movement. The consequences of the system of male guardianship, as confirmed by Saudi activists, include:

Marriage and divorce

A girl of any age can be forced into marriage by her male guardian.

A woman of any age requires the consent of her male guardian to enter into marriage.

A woman can be forcibly divorced from her husband at the behest of her male guardian.


A girl cannot be educated without the consent of her male guardian.

A woman cannot continue her education without the consent of her husband or male guardian.

Freedom of movement

A woman cannot get a passport without the permission of her husband or male guardian.

A woman cannot travel, or take her children anywhere, without the permission of her husband or male guardian.


A woman cannot be admitted to, or discharged from, a government hospital without the permission of her husband or male guardian.

A woman cannot make decisions regarding medical care, including family planning, for herself or her children without the permission of her husband or male guardian.

Employment and agency

In the few jobs that are permitted to a Saudi woman, she cannot be employed without the approval of her husband or male guardian.

Irrespective of age or educational attainment, a woman cannot run a business unless it is in the name of her husband or male guardian and she has his permission to manage it.

A woman cannot access government agencies without women-only sections unless she is accompanied by her husband or male guardian.

Access to justice

A woman cannot enter a police station to file a complaint unless she is accompanied by her husband or male guardian.

A woman cannot file a court case or even appear before a judge without the presence of her husband or male guardian.

These realities contradict the report submitted by Saudi Arabia in 2008 to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW Committee) where the Saudi government states that “a woman has the right to choose a husband and to enter into marriage only with her consent”, and asserts that male guardianship over women is not legally prescribed. The CEDAW Committee, in its concluding comments to Saudi Arabia in April 2008, noted with concern that “the concept of male guardianship over women (mehrem), although it may not be legally prescribed, seems to be widely accepted; it severely limits women’s exercise of their rights under the Convention, in particular with regard to their legal capacity and in relation to issues of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, and the choice of residency, education and employment.” It urged Saudi Arabia to take immediate steps to end the practice of male guardianship over women. In December 2008, in an appearance before the Human Rights Council, the Saudi government once again stated that “there are no statutory requirements that necessitate guardianship or make a woman’s enjoyment of her rights conditional on approval” and that women in the Saudi Kingdom “conduct all their affairs in full independence.”

Recommended Actions

Please write to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Minister of Justice asking them to ensure that the Saudi legal and judicial system reflect the stated claim that women are not subject to male guardianship, but rather have the right, among other aspects, to enter into and stay in marriages of their choice without third party interference and make relevant decisions about their education, healthcare, travel and employment and other aspects of life. Urge them to support the establishment of a codified personal status law to guarantee the rights of women in marriage, divorce and all other aspects of life and to revoke the male guardianship system that hinders women’s participation in both private and public life. TAKE ACTION!

Letters should go to:

His Majesty, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 491 2726

His Excellency Dr. Muhammad bin Abdul Elkarim Abdul Azziz El Issa
Minister of Justice
University Street, Riyadh 11137 
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 401 1741

With a copy to:
The Human Rights Commission
P.O. Box 58889, Riyadh 11515
King Fahed Street, Building 373, Riyadh
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia



Sample letter