Saudi Arabian women urge end to male ‘guardianship’ laws

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo, Catherine Philp, London

Saudi Arabian women have urged the Kingdom to abandon its guardianship law that gives men sweeping powers over their female relatives, after the country took the historic step of dropping a ban on women driving.

Under the “mahram” system, women in Saudi Arabia must seek permission from a male relative to perform basic public tasks such as travelling or opening a bank account. Until minor reforms were announced in May, male guardians even had to approve women’s requests to visit the doctor.

Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to bar women from driving until King Salman ordered the government to issue women driving licences yesterday. The government said the historic measures would be rolled out by June 2018.

Women heralded the decision as a victory but called for further reforms, resurrecting the hashtag “I am my own guardian”. Many expressed fears that women would have to secure permission from their male relatives to apply for a licence.

“It is a victory but we hope it will be one of many decisions to come that give women more rights on the path of becoming, one day, equal to men,” said Rasha Hafza, a Saudi rights activist who was one of the first women to successfully stand in an election last year.

She said she hoped the guardianship system would be the next hurdle removed and that the end of the driving ban was a sign of progress within Saudi society. “It reflects a change in the culture of Saudi Arabia and the mentality of the people,” she added.

Manal al-Sharif, a rights activist in exile in Australia, who had started the women’s campaign to drive in 2011, also called for the end of the guardian system, and expressed fears about how the driving ban would be lifted. She has been jailed multiple times for driving alongside several other fellow female activists.

“Women’s rights activists will still continue to observe how this law is implemented and monitored and will continue campaigning to abolish the male guardianship imposed on them,” she said on Tuesday. “ We ask for nothing short of full equality for women.”

Another activist, still in Saudi Arabia, who was previously jailed for taking part in driving protests, said the authorities had warned her not to speak to the media or publicly celebrate the lifting of the ban.

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Bodies piled four deep as haj pilgrims struggled for breath

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Survivors of a deadly stampede at the haj in Islam’s holy city described how they clambered to safety over metal barriers as bodies piled up four deep around them.

At least 719 people died and 863 were wounded in the crush yesterday morning, which began as crowds walked from Mina to Mecca. King Salman of Saudi Arabia appeared on live television last night to order an immediate investigation into the worst disaster at the haj for a quarter of a century.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, immediately blamed the Saudi ruling family and said that they must accept responsibility for the deaths of 131 Iranians in the crush. “Mismanagement and improper actions have caused this catastrophe,” he said. “The Saudi government should accept the responsibility of this sorrowful incident.”

Thousands of people were making their way to Rami al-Jamarat, where a stoning ritual takes place as part of the five-day pilgrimage, when disaster struck at about 9am.

Crowds were moving in both directions along a narrow road lined with metal barriers through Mina, a tent city that provides temporary accommodation to half of the haj’s two million annual visitors, about five miles from the Grand Mosque.

Witnesses said that with the numbers swelling and temperatures already rising in the desert, pilgrims caught in the middle of the opposing lanes of traffic at the intersection of streets 204 and 223 had panicked.

“There were literally thousands of people passing each other in opposite directions. The pushing and shoving started in the middle, so we called out to people to calm down,” said Ibrahim, 32, from Mali, who had paused briefly on the side of the road to allow his wife to rest. “Suddenly one person fell on the ground, and then another, and then another in the centre, tripping up others as they went. Then it happened. It was like someone hit the panic button,” he said.

“The only way we could escape was to climb up to barricades that mark enclosures in front of the tents, and to scream at them to stop.”

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