Katherine Backler

Saudi Arabia has lifted its ban on women driving. But the guardianship system, which requires that every Saudi girl and woman be under the authority of a designated male relative throughout her life, remains in place. Without the permission of her guardian – her father, husband, brother, son, uncle, cousin – a woman cannot marry, travel abroad, or be released from prison. A guardian's permission is no longer required for a woman to see a doctor, get a job or report a crime, but many hospitals, employers and police stations still ask for it. Women are supposed to ask their guardian's permission to leave the house, an informal requirement occasionally upheld by the courts. A guardian can file a complaint on the Ministry of Justice website to 'demand submission from those under his guardianship' or to have a woman under his guardianship returned to him. Some guardians are liberal, lenient and supportive, and let women work and travel – but their permission is still required. ‘I’m lucky,’ a student told Le Monde Diplomatique. ‘My father trusts me, but it's not like that for my friends. Every time they beg their guardians to let them go out, they say no, and often they beat them.’

Classical Athens, routinely described as the cradle of Western democracy, had a similar system. Every woman had a male guardian, called a kyrios. He acted as her legal representative (women could not pursue lawsuits in their own right); arranged her marriage; and formally or informally controlled many other aspects of her life. According to one Athenian law, a woman could not carry out transactions worth more than the amount of barley a family would eat in a week without her guardian's permission, though this was not always enforced. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones has argued that ancient Greek women routinely veiled their heads and sometimes their faces; the women who appear on classical Athenian pots are often heavily veiled. It has long been accepted that sex-segregation was the norm in fifth and fourth-century Athens. Systems of male domination are as hard to rope off as they are to uproot.

In both the Saudi and Athenian guardianship systems, a widow with no living father or brother passes into the guardianship of her son. Khadija, a former journalist, told Human Rights Watch that since her father's death, she and her mother have been under the guardianship of her brother. 'It really is ridiculous,' she said. If her mother ‘wants to travel, she needs the permission of her son. Why? Come on, why would an elderly woman need the permission of her son or even grandson to travel or to do anything?’

There are at least two extant reports of Athenian widows being abused by their sons. As their sons were their legal guardians and representatives, the women could not easily take them to court (Saudi women face similar barriers). One installed herself in a temple – which offered her religious protection from forced removal and lent authority to her claims – and denounced her son from there. The other, fearing that if she gave her son money to pay for her funeral, he would spend it on himself, gave her savings to a trusted friend and asked him to arrange her funeral instead. Some Saudi women hope to escape abusive fathers or brothers by marrying. One Athenian widow, whose father allegedly stole her sons' inheritance and part of her dowry, remarried and was able to prosecute her father through her new husband and her son-in-law.

In Saudi Arabia, a woman's male relative can apply to the courts to have her divorced from her husband, even against her will. An Athenian woman called Cleiocrateia was divorced from her husband by her father, who 'removed his daughter’ from the marriage ‘and gave her to Spoudias’. Saudi men can divorce their wives orally, without recourse to the courts except for post-hoc documentation, but women have to petition the court for a divorce. This is time-consuming and expensive, and requires the continuous support of a male relative. Courts will also mandate the woman to attempt 'reconciliation' with her husband before proceeding; there is no such requirement for men initiating divorce. During the long divorce process, the woman's husband remains her legal guardian.

In classical Athens, too, men could divorce their wives simply by 'sending them away'. Women, on the other hand, had to register a divorce with the magistrate, which required, in practice if not law, the support of a father or brother. We know of only one classical Athenian woman who tried to divorce her husband. This was Hipparete, wife of Alcibiades. Insulted and humiliated by his bringing lovers and prostitutes into the house, she went to the magistrate to get a divorce. On the way, Alcibiades and his friends grabbed her and carried her home.

Last year, a campaign by women in Afghanistan, نامم_کجاست# (#WhereIsMyName), protested against the custom of not mentioning a woman's name in public. Many Afghan men use such circumlocutions as 'mother of my children' or 'X's wife' instead, and some women don’t say their own names. The same convention prevailed in classical Athens. We know the names of Cleiocrateia and Hipparete from sources other than the law courts; the names of most Athenian women are lost to history. When a boy was born, his name and his father’s were registered with his deme; girls’ births weren’t registered. Since 2001, Saudi Arabian women have been able to have their own identity cards; previously they were listed only on their guardians' cards. In modern Afghanistan, girls’ names, though registered at birth, are conspicuously absent from legal records thereafter.

There are records of two Athenian inheritance cases in which one side flatly argued that a woman central to the case did not exist. Evidence was one man's word against another's: one side claimed the woman was known and respected in her community; the other that no one in the community knew of such a woman. There were also cases in which a woman's citizenship was challenged in court. The stakes were high: if a woman (legally represented by a man) could not prove her citizenship, she was classed as a metic (immigrant). All metics had to be registered and pay tax. If she wasn’t registered – and, believing herself a citizen, she would not have registered as an immigrant – she could be sold into slavery. There is an echo not in Saudi Arabia this time but in modern Britain: citizens who came to the UK during the Windrush era, unable to prove their citizenship years later, were designated 'illegal' immigrants and deported.


  • 3 July 2018 at 6:21pm
    deadsparrow says:
    Is the point of this seemingly pointless essay to compare present-day conditions in Saudi Arabia with the Athens of 2,500 years ago? Or is it suggesting that the deportation of three "Windrush" immigrants means that Britain is just as ethically stunted as any state that deploys sharia law against its female citizens?

    • 3 July 2018 at 9:47pm
      Rob Kirtley says: @ deadsparrow
      Seems like a pretty 'Ronseal' essay to me.