Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Saudi Arabian women tracked by text messages

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Men in Saudi Arabia will be texted when their female charges cross the border.Photo / Thinkstock
Men in Saudi Arabia will be texted when their female charges cross the border.Photo / Thinkstock

Saudi Arabian women are forbidden from leaving the country without permission from a male "guardian". And now, to make extra sure this law is enforced, a new system run by the immigration authorities alerts men via SMS when their charges cross the border.

Manal al-Sharif, a well-known Saudi women's rights activist, tweeted information about the new system last week when she was alerted by a holidaying (Saudi) couple. The surprised husband, who said he hadn't opted in for the alert, received a text to say his wife was passing through immigration.

Saudi Arabia uses a strict interpretation of Sharia, the moral code and religious law of Islam. According to Human Rights Watch, guardians have almost total control over a woman and can be a husband, father, brother, or son.

All women regardless of age are required to have one, and guardians can approve or reject her travel, education, work, marriages, official business and healthcare.

Within Saudi Arabia, opinion on guardianship is mixed. Liberal activists reject the custom as demeaning, nothing less than a master-slave relationship. Women's rights campaigner Wajeha Al-Huwaidar has said of the practice:

"Ownership of the woman is passed from the father or the brother to another man, the husband. The woman is merely a piece of merchandise, which is passed over to someone else - her guardian. How do you recognise a maid or a slave? The decision making is out of her hands."

However, some groups of women - considered by the likes of Al-Huwaider as simply fearful of change - consider guardianship a woman's right. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Noura Abdulrahman, a female employee of the Saudi Ministry of Education, said:

"As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return-they only want to be with me. The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love."

Similarly, a Facebook page titled "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me" appeared in 2009. Within two months, more than 5,400 people had signed its petition calling for rejection of "the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty". The petition's authors demanded "punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors."

It's this sense of contradiction that defines civil life for Saudi women. As Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan points out, six in 10 Saudi college graduates are women but gender segregation laws makes actually hiring female graduates near impossible.

In the same paradoxical vein, head of state King Abdullah finally decreed women would be able to vote, but just days later a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving. (She was eventually pardoned following a global outcry, but the incongruity stands firm.)

Saudi Arabia is the only place in the world that bans women from driving, despite ongoing local protests. Religious edicts by the Kingdom's senior clerics claim the ban "protects against the spread of vice and temptation". In other words, allowing a woman to drive would risk her travelling to visit a man.

No doubt that is also the reasoning behind the new SMS airport alerts for guardians. The fear of female sexuality goes back as far as humankind, but clearly even oppression is embracing technology. What a terrifying thought.

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