The New York Times recently published a small piece highlighting the stories of Saudi women dealing with the country’s archaic male guardianship laws — custody laws which dictate that nearly every move a woman makes must be allowed by her male “guardian.” To learn about these laws, I spoke with Isaac Cohen (@IWHco) who runs S.A.F.E. Mov and has been entrenched in this scene for the past year or more.

The following is our conversation transcribed and edited for clarity.

Malhar Mali: How did you stumble upon male guardianship in Saudi Arabia?

Isaac Cohen: I’d interviewed a Saudi Atheist two years ago who told me about an underground of non-believers and Atheists. He also told me disturbing things like guys wouldn’t think twice about killing their daughters — or sending their daughters to the authorities if they ever came out as Atheists. I thought that was astonishing and I asked him would they send their daughters out of the country to avoid the law — disowning them effectively — but at least that way they were safe, and he told me that was a definite no.

The guardianship stuff happened with the Human Rights Watch. They’d done a report about Saudi Women — very comprehensive. They started a movement and I engaged with it, made a couple posts, and I received a wave of feedback. I received around 300 new followers the next day. The overwhelming amount of women thanking me was unexpected — they didn’t care what my religious affiliation or race was, they cared that a man was listening. Because the men there for the most part don’t listen. They tell their women: “Nobody is listening. You’re barking. Nobody cares. No one is going to help you, get over it.”

MM: I listened to your podcast about Saudi Women — incredibly sobering  — where you read out a bunch of stories relating to male guardianship. Can you give us a background of what these laws are?

IC: They’re comprehensive and systematic across every scope:

Women cannot be heads of the household. They don’t have equal custody over the kids in marriage or divorce. A woman needs to appeal the court if she was forced to marry someone. That means after she gets married, she has to file a court charge in Sharia courts — disregarding the fact that to do that she would need the permission of her male guardian, which would be her husband who she got force-married to. Her kids cannot become Saudi nationals if she’s with a non-Saudi husband. But if a Saudi man has sex with a non-Saudi his kids will become Saudi nationals — it’s blatant discrimination. If divorced, she doesn’t get any property. She doesn’t have full autonomy to work, travel, leave the house, anything like that.

Let’s say a woman finds work at a company that doesn’t require the guardian’s permission — which is immensely rare — then her guardian can call the police and say she’s a hareba, which means a run-away trying to escape the state. Because you can’t leave the country without permission. To give an example, 1722 women ran away from Saudi Arabia. 600 of which were Saudi women, and the remainder were non-nationals. Women that were working there, maids, etc., those who have terrible jobs.

Saudi women can be put in jail for being a run-away, and the guardian has to pick her up after her sentence is finished. If he doesn’t, she just stays in there to rot. The Saudi Gazette did a report on this, which was taken down, showing that 35% of women in prison had already served their sentence and were just waiting on a guardian to pick them up. They’ve done their time and they’re just waiting. Waiting for their guardian to care.

There’s no clear laws criminalizing wife abuse or rape. If she can’t prove her husband’s abuse often it’s about 30,000 Riyal fine she has to pay — which is around $10,000–15,000 or so. She can’t end the marriage on her own will but her husband can. There’s restrictions on her career prospects by her guardian. There is no written personal status laws in Saudi Arabia. And this is just the personal law systems. If we go into the educational sector: there’s very minimal PhD attainment for women because the jobs and study that lead to a doctarate are mixed gender jobs — and you’re not allowed to interact with men if you’re a woman. Women are forbidden from many cultural activities, sports. The women’s facilities are much worse. The educational pursuits have to be approved by their guardians.

This is the tip of the ice-berg. It bifurcates into just worse, and worse, and worse, and worse. Women have an average economic contribution of 20.2% in the country. 5.6 million women above the age of 15 are not in the workforce, not integrated whatsoever. Transportation is a hindrance for 46% of women in the way of finding a suitable work opportunity. This means at least half of them cannot find a job where it would be profitable or financially plausible for them to be paying Uber to drive them to these jobs. 60% of women depend on private drivers and taxis — they pay 30%–20% of their income towards transportation at a bare minimum.

Women’s contribution in law-making is low. Saudi Women are excluded from all leadership positions inside of religious establishments. Women are asked to obtain  their guardian’s permission in almost all sectors. Even if you want to run for politics you have to get your guardian’s permission or you have to get a signed waiver from the King. Wives can’t be the guardians of their children. Gender based segregation is decreasing job opportunities for women and effecting their representation in the job market. Male guardians need to approve if a woman wins any type of educational scholarship. The limited number of nurseries is driving women from working — and the list goes on, and on, and on.

MM: You’ve laid out a lot of information about how terrible these laws are and there’s probably a high likelihood they’re being bastardized. Being so involved in this, I’m sure you’ve heard some disturbing information. Can you relate to us some of these stories?

IC: I’ve heard some awful stuff. One woman — I’m not going to say her name — talked about her 19-year old brother dry humping her when she was eight years old and she didn’t understand what was happening. She would laugh and her brother would tell her to be quiet. When she was 11, her brother came to visit her and raped her anally. That was a really disturbing thing for me to hear. She went into incredible detail about the experience. She thought she was going to die, she didn’t understand what was being done to her. She was pretending to be asleep because she wanted her brother to leave her alone. She was awake when she shouldn’t have been.

There’s multiple stories of women being harassed, groped, sexually assaulted by taxi drivers, random people. The worst part about is that even if you do report it, it’s going to cause you more problems than it would ever solve. You do report it, guess what? You have to tell your guardian some guy felt you up. And that’s not going to go over well with most guardians in that society. If things are charged under Tazir crimes, a pregnancy from rape can result in an adultery execution for the woman. I’ve heard countless stories of terrible things being done to women — and they’re pretty much powerless to report, solve, or find solutions because of the way the system is set up.


The suicide rates; women have a 10 to one ratio. 10 women to one man try to commit suicide in Saudi Arabia. The average in America is four women to one man. The men succesfully succeed in their endeavor more often, and this is the same theoretically in Saudi Arabia. A majority of the suicides over there are internationals — workers, etc. Among the Saudi nationals, women are at a very close rate in terms of actually committing suicide. Nearly on par with men.

Polygamy has been shown to cause massive depression in these women. The sexual reproduction health in Saudi Arabia is awful: 46% of women believe that it’s true you can get pregnant from kissing and touching — these are results from college educated women in 13 universities spread out through Riyadh. Everything in that society is stigmatized, shunned, sheltered, and abused for women.

MM: #stopenslavingsaudiwomen trended for a while here. Can you speak about that was received here?

IC: Really well — on both sides of the aisle. There’s a lot of feminists that haven’t touched it and that’s really aggravating but there’s a lot of them that have touched it, so I’m going to give a lot of credit to the women that’re showing solidarity. Saudi women and Afghan women are easily the most oppressed women in the middleast, and I would argue that Afghan women are more oppressed than Saudi women, and Saudi women more oppressed than Iranian women. They have a litany of other issues in Iranian society, too.

MM: Are you receiving any support from organizations here?

IC: I’ve gotten a lot of support from people who have been helping me to do this. We’ve almost gotten into some high-school and even some college areas — people that want to do some pro-bono film stuff for their classwork, for directing and filmography, submitting 30-second clips of the tangible effects of these guardianship laws. Things like a small boy leading his mother around because he is her guardian. Small showcases like that. I could have all the money in the world but the only thing I could do with it is make commercials and raise awareness.

In the end this is in the current King’s hands. He has to act like King Faisal did in 1966 and 1967 when women’s schools were attacked. There were riots and destructions of those schools and murder of the teachers then. King Faisal had to send out the military to stop the rioting, bigoted people that wanted to stop women from having an education. So, it’s a really awful society with many awful people — but many, many good people. I don’t want to short-sell. If you see a Saudi woman who is free in some shape or form it’s because a good male guardian has respected her as a human being and has given her autonomy.


MM: What can we do to help? What organizations can we support?

IC: Support and spread the word. That’s really important. Spread the word and raise awareness of the conditions these women — human beings — are subjected to. If anyone is a billionaire and they want to start a lobbying group, that would help a lot. But unless we have some billionaire who wants to do humanitarian crusades with us, there’s not much we can do other than raise awareness and let these women know that these are issues being raised around the world and that they’re not forgotten. People are welcome to ask me any questions that they want on twitter (@IWHco) as well. Maybe I’ll do a Q & A session.

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