This app is helping Saudi women know their rights
Imagine yourself driving. You’re not going anywhere out of the ordinary, just running errands or visiting a friend. Now imagine that driving makes your heart jump in fear of attack or incarceration — that this act is an incendiary political statement. For Saudi women, this is life.
Driving isn’t the only freedom from which Saudi women are banned: They are also unable to exercise freedom in clothing, travel, work, or family. This reality led the World Economic Forum to rank Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries in its 2016 report on the global gender gap.
But perhaps the most unequal stature in place in the country is its guardianship system. This system classifies all women, no matter their age, as minors who are legally dependent on a male guardian, who can be their father, brother, or even son. No matter who their guardian is, though, those guardians have the power to grant permission for women to get jobs or leave the country. A guardian’s power is far-ranging and serious: For example, if a male guardian does not come to pick up a female convict, she must remain imprisoned, for the rest of her life if need be.
While the restrictions women in Saudi Arabia are subjected to are far-ranging, many instances of gender inequality fall in a legal gray area. For example, while women are not issued driver’s licenses in the country, there is actually no official law that prohibits women from driving.
This gray area, and women’s ignorance of it, is exactly what Nasreen Alissa, a Saudi lawyer, hopes to target in order to empower women to exercise their rights. As Alissa told CNNMoney, “I noticed whenever I go out to gatherings and meetings, women did not know their rights, even educated women, women who studied abroad, didn’t know their rights.” So last July, Alissa created a “Know Your Rights” app for Saudi women that features animated videos that decode complicated information surrounding custody, travel, abuse, inheritance, and more.The app, which is updated regularly to keep women informed of new laws, has been downloaded 50,000 times.
The app helps women fight against a government that relies on women’s passivity to patriarchy by serving as a vehicle to empower women’s resistance to it. For instance, last September, women’s rights advocate Aziza Al-Youssef collected over 14,000 signatures on a petition she created calling on King Salman to eradicate the guardianship system — a system that was explained to women through the app, which in turn advanced the movement.
When Al-Youssef and fellow activist Eman Al-Nefjan brought the petition to the office, officials told them to go home. Soon after, the story broke that the site to sign the petition was blocked, sparking global support. As activists, artists, writers, and simply recognizers of equal rights joined forces across the world, the King finally responded with a somewhat substantive decree that women would no longer need a male guardian’s signature to access certain governmental services.
The fight is clearly far from over. For example, as Saudi writer and activist Hala Al-Dosari noted last year, the decree does not protect women from domestic violence. But the government will never change unless those within the system continue to resist, and that resistance can’t occur unless women know when they are being treated unequally and what their rights are.
More articles by Category: Feminism, International
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