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Perpetual Minors » Women's Courage

Perpetual Minors

February 24th, 2011 by aherrera Leave a reply »

Even if you go to a hospital for an operation, you need a guardian. It’s your life. Why do you need his signature?”

-Riyadh, a Saudi woman

Saudi Arabia chose to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), however actual practices throughout the country are not necessarily in line with the legislation. Women are still treated as second class citizens, or more appropriately, as “perpetual minors”, as Human Rights Watch refers to the in their 2008 report. Saudi Arabia has a long tradition of practicing a system of guardianship, where men are required to grant permission and escort women to daily activities, such as going to the bank, airport, and hospital. “If a [pregnant] woman comes in to the hospital with a guardian, then she can leave with anyone, even the driver. If she comes in without a guardian, it becomes a “police case,” and she’ll need a guardian to come to the hospital in order for her to get discharged. She stays here if no one picks her up.”[1] This requirement is not only inconvenient and frustrating for women, but can be dangerous if husbands, fathers, or brothers refuse to take their wives to seek medical care.

One of the reservations that Saudi Arabia established when they ratified CEDAW stated that “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.”[2] Although the government continually denies that the practice of guardianship is required by Islamic law, reports from various parties confirm that it is indeed widely required for many activities. “The Saudi government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom. It needs to stop requiring adult women to seek permission from men, not just pretend to stop it.” [3] Guardianship requirements vary from hospital to hospital, as there are no formal regulations. What the final decision usually comes down to are the religious views of the facility administrator. According to the head of the General Directorate of Hospitals, “The law is written and clear that a woman has the right to be admitted without permission. It is the right of any lady or male to be admitted and discharged if [they are] over 18. Any procedure can be signed by the patient himself if they are wise enough. It is well known that a physician must provide medical care whenever a patient needs it. But a lot of social factors play a role limiting the application of the law. What we need right now is to work hard to educate the people about their rights. The law is there; that it is not applied is something else.”[4]

This allows an upper hand for men in negotiations of family planning, to say the least. In 2008, the total fertility rate was 5.7 children per woman, and only 32% of married women 15-49 used any contraceptive method- the number was even lower (21%) in rural areas.[5] Contraception is only legally available to married couples[6], and (semi)permanent forms, such as IUDs and sterilization, are most often the decision of the husband because of the practice of guardianship. In order for the government to really improve the lives of women, drastic steps need to be taken so that the legislation they have created in order to ensure women’s health care is not contingent upon the beliefs of health care providers.

[1] http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/07/08/saudi-arabia-women-s-rights-promises-broken

[2] http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reservations-country.htm

[3] see footnote 1

[4] http://www.hrw.org/en/node/62251/section/6

[5] http://www.prb.org/pdf/WomensReproHealth_Eng.pdf

[6] http://www.emro.who.int/rhrn/countryprofiles_saa.htm



  1. hannahky says:

    This is shocking! I’ve always known that women’s access to medical care is often controlled by men, but I had never heard that “perpetual minorhood” is such an institutionalized phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. And I’m realizing that if these women are free to sign in to a hospital independently, they might not be able to make it there–they have no right to drive, and their drivers are almost certainly under their husband’s command.
    Check out this interesting article about how women propose to change this situation!

  2. hnorton says:

    I agree, this post was very informative. I also agree that I don’t understand what it actually means to sign CEDAW if you are able to throw in the clause “as long as it doesn’t disagree with Sharia law”. The part that I found the most interesting about this post is how subjective the idea of guardianship in the medical system is. It seems the word needs to be broadcast to women that they have the right to healthcare, regardless of whether a man is accompanying them or not. Furthermore, the facility administrators need to have someone checking in on them to make sure they are abiding by the law.

  3. csendax says:

    I found this issue of guardianship and women as potential minors to be extremely fascinating and pressing. I read “Infidel” for my book report, which discussed this exact issue. However, for me, the issue of viewing and treating women as “perpetual minors” is urgent even before we explore its repercussions to women’s access to proper healthcare. At the most fundamental level, you cannot sign an international agreement to uphold gender equality, and legally bind women to the status of minors, while their male counterparts confer the status of an adult. We have spent this course exploring subtle and less obvious ways in which women are oppressed and subjugated to being treated as male subordinates. However, in my opinion and I am sure many others, there is no piece of legislation or social phenomena more obviously culpable for rendering women male subordinates than this issue of guardianship and women as “perpetual minors.”

  4. taniat says:

    This issue of guardianship is something that I’ve never thought about in the realm of healthcare! I completely agree with you that this could potentially be very dangerous to women’s health and rights. It is very interesting that the law is there to protect a woman’s right to represent herself in medical care yet societal norms prevent this right from being exercised. I’m curious to know what the paperwork and hospital policies are. It is interesting that the hospital would require paperwork and signatures from the guardian if the national law does not require it. Also, does this practice of guardianship exist widely throughout Saudi Arabia? Is there a movement to educate women about their rights to medical care already?

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