Panafrican News Agency

Male guardianship rules hamper travel, other movements in North Africa, Middle East

Beirut, Lebanon (PANA) - Many Middle East and North African countries still prevent women from moving freely in their own country or travelling abroad without the permission of a male guardian, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Tuesday.

The 119-page report, “Trapped: How Male Guardianship Policies Restrict Women's Travel and Mobility in the Middle East and North Africa," noted that women’s rights activists have succeeded in securing women’s increased freedoms in many countries in the region.

However, old and new restrictions require women to seek permission from their male guardian – typically their father, brother, or husband – to move within their country, obtain a passport, or travel abroad.

HRW said it also found that in a number of countries, women could not travel abroad with their children on an equal basis with men.

“From leaving the home to leaving the country, authorities in the Middle East and North Africa are imposing varying restrictions on women’s right to freedom of movement,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at HRW. “Women in the region are fighting against restrictions that authorities often claim are for their protection, but in reality, deprive women of their rights and enable men to control and abuse them at will.”

HRW said the report is based on a comparative analysis of dozens of laws, regulations, and policies, as well as information provided by lawyers, activists, and women in 20 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

It said male guardianship policies in the region, which also exist beyond the Middle East, have been influenced by a broader history of laws and traditions around the world, including European legal traditions, that gave or still give men control over women’s lives.

The report said 15 countries in the region still apply personal status or family laws that require women to either “obey” their husbands, live with them, or seek their permission to leave the marital home, work, or travel. Courts can order women to return to their marital homes or lose their right to spousal maintenance.

In some countries, these rules are becoming more entrenched. The report said in March 2022, Saudi Arabia issued its first written Personal Status Law, which codified the long-standing practice of requiring women to obey their husband “in a reasonable manner” or lose financial support from their husbands if they refuse to live in the marital home “without a legitimate excuse”.

Women can be arrested or detained or forced to return home if male guardians in Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia report that they are “absent” from their homes. 

In countries experiencing conflict, some armed groups have imposed guardianship restrictions in areas under their control.

While women’s rights activists in the region have made some gains, they continue to fight against discriminatory mobility restrictions.

In 2018, following decades of advocacy and activism, Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive, but other restrictions remain.

Women in Iran continue their decades-long fight against the mandatory hijab, a central feature of the nationwide “women, life, freedom” protests that erupted after the death in custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in September 2022.

HRW said in a positive advance, most governments in the region now allow women to obtain passports and travel abroad without requiring guardian permission.

“Even as women’s rights activists win some freedoms, the authorities seek to take others away, rolling back not just women’s rights, but harming children, families and society,” Begum said. “All authorities in the Middle East and North Africa should eliminate any and all discriminatory restrictions on women’s freedom of movement including all male guardianship rules.”

-0- PANA MA 18July2023