Saudi Arabia: Give women equal opportunities to education & end male guardianship over women

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Action Number: 
31.4
Date: 
5 Apr 2011
Swsan and her father
Swsan and her father

Swsan Ali El Demini, a bright and ambitious 18-year-old Saudi girl, has dreams of getting the best education. However, Swsan’s education has been an uphill struggle. Raised in Saudi Arabia under a system of male guardianship, Swsan has been lucky in that her father, considered her male guardian, has supported her dreams. However, the educational facilities and fields of study available to Swsan under Saudi Arabia’s sex segregated education system are inferior and much more limited than those available to Saudi boys. As such, Swsan hopes to continue her studies overseas in the United States. However, as her family requires government assistance to cover the cost of a US education, Swsan is unable to apply because of the requirement of the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education that a male guardian accompany any Saudi female who studies abroad on a government scholarship. This requirement is enforced through forms needing the signature of a male guardian before permission is granted to study abroad and regular monitoring by the Saudi cultural attaché in the country where the degree is being pursued. Failure to comply with the requirement can result in ending the scholarship. Swsan cannot study abroad even though both parents are willing to accompany her because her father has been barred from traveling out of Saudi Arabia due to his political activism and her mother is not considered her guardian.

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Education is a fundamental human right and is critical in providing a path to a successful and productive future. According to UNICEF, ensuring access to a rights-based, quality education that is rooted in gender equality creates a ripple effect of opportunity that impacts generations to come. Saudi Arabia’s policies on education, however, are steeped in gender stereotypes and according to Saudi official policy "the purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment.”

The system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, among other things, restricts girls’ access to education because girls cannot be educated without the consent of their male guardian. Moreover, male guardians have the authority to prevent girls from continuing their studies at all levels, including graduate and post-graduate studies. In addition, permission is needed from a male guardian in choosing a field of study. The male guardianship system also imposes restrictions on women who are in educational institutions as they are often not allowed to leave the premises even in case of illness without a male guardian. In fact, Saudi women report that in many educational institutions female teachers and students are locked in during teaching hours and students are not allowed to leave the premises unless a male guardian or designated driver comes to collect them. Due perhaps to the onerous male guardian accompaniment requirement, only 21% of Saudi students studying overseas are female.

In addition to the burdens imposed by the male guardianship system, the Saudi sex-segregated education system also provides inferior facilities and restricted curricula and fields of study to women. There are no public university programs for women in fields such as engineering, architecture or political science and some universities exclude female students altogether. Saudi activists report that female students are often relegated to inferior facilities, such as older dilapidated buildings and less well equipped libraries and that their access to shared libraries is restricted.

Saudi Arabia has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), that in Article 10 requires States Parties to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education” and to ensure equality in education opportunities for men and women through “the same conditions for career and vocational guidance, for access to studies and for the achievement of diplomas in educational establishments of all categories”; “access to the same curricula, the same examinations, teaching staff with qualifications of the same standard and school premises and equipment of the same quality” and “the same opportunities to benefit from scholarships and other study grants.”

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the body that monitors compliance with CEDAW, in its concluding comments to Saudi Arabia in April 2008, noted with concern that “the concept of male guardianship over women . . . 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, . . . education and employment” and urged Saudi Arabia to take immediate steps to end the practice of male guardianship over women. It also recommended that Saudi Arabia “raise awareness of the importance of education as a human right and as the basis for the empowerment of women” and “ensure equal access for girls and women to all levels and fields of education . . . .” In addition, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body that monitors compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in its concluding comments to Saudi Arabia in March 2006, recommended that it “ensure that all children have an equal access to quality education at all levels of the educational system” and “take measures to break down stereotypical attitudes about the roles and responsibilities of women and men and . . . critically review its school curricula with a view to abolishing all discriminatory practices in education, including girls’ limited access to vocational education and training.”

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the King of Saudi Arabia, the Minister of Higher Education, the Minister of Education and the Shura Council asking them to live up to their obligations under international law to provide men and women equal rights in education with equal access to all academic levels and equal resources and facilities. Urge them to revoke all requirements that hinder female students from pursuing their education at all stages including the requirement that a male guardian accompany any Saudi female who studies abroad on a government scholarship. Urge 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 things, to pursue all levels of education with access to the same fields of study, educational resources and facilities and on the same terms as their male counterparts. Please send a copy to the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia.

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Letters should go to:

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

H.E. Dr. Khaled Al Anqari
Minister of Higher Education
Tel: +966 1 441 5555     
Fax: +966 1 441 9004
contact@mohe.gov.sa

H.E. Faisal Bin Abdullah bin Muhammad Al Sud
Minister of Education
Fax: +96614057279

H.E. Dr. Abdullah Bin Mohammed Bin Ibrahim Al-Sheikh
Speaker of the Shura Shura Council
Tel: +966 1 482 1666, +966 1 482 1666           
Fax: +966 1 481 6985
webmaster@shura.gov.sa

With a copy to:

The Human Rights Commission
P.O. Box 58889 Riyadh 11515
King Fahed Street, Building 373, Riyadh
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Email: hrc@haq-ksa.org

Letters: 

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

[H.E. Dr. Khaled Al Anqari
Minister of Higher Education
Tel: +966 1 441 5555
Fax: +966 1 4419004
contact@mohe.gov.sa]

[H.E. Faisal Bin Abdullah bin Muhammad Al Sud            
Minister of Education]
Fax:96614057279+

[H.E. Dr. Abdullah Bin Mohammed Bin Ibrahim Al-Sheikh
Speaker of the Shura
Shura Council
Tel: +966 1 4821666 , +966 1 4821666      
Fax: +9661 4816985
webmaster@shura.gov.sa]

[Date]

[Your Highness] [Dear Minister],

I am writing to express my deep concern about the system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia which among other things restricts girls’ access to education and therefore, to a successful and productive future.  Girls cannot be educated without the consent of their male guardian, can be restricted from pursuing further studies at any level, cannot leave the premises of educational institutions without permission from a male guardian and cannot travel abroad to study on a government scholarship without a male guardian.  In addition, the Saudi sex-segregated education system also provides inferior facilities and restricted curricula and fields of study to women. 

A case in point is that of 18-year-old Swsan Ali El Demini who wants to continue her studies overseas in the United States.  However, as her family requires government assistance to cover the cost of a US education, Swsan is unable to apply because of the requirement of the Saudi Ministry of Education that a male guardian accompany any Saudi female who studies abroad on a government scholarship.

I urge you to ensure that Saudi Arabia lives up to its obligations under international law to provide men and women equal rights in education with equal access to all academic levels and equal resources and facilities.  In this respect I urge you to revoke all requirements that hinder female students from pursuing their education at all stages including the requirement that a male guardian accompany any Saudi female who studies abroad on a government scholarship.  Please 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 things, to pursue all levels of education with access to the same fields of study, educational resources and facilities and on the same terms as their male counterparts.

I thank you for your attention.

Sincerely yours,

Cc: The Human Rights Commission (email: hrc@haq-ksa.org)
       Shura Council