women of the world

What It’s Like to Have All Your Decisions Made for You by a Man

Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

Women of the World is a series of snapshots of how women live, in honor of International Women’s Day. The conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is notorious for its “guardianship system,” under which Saudi women must have a designated legal male guardian — usually a father, brother, or husband — who can make decisions on her behalf. Though the rule was officially softened in 2017, male guardians still exert significant influence: Women in Saudi can’t get a passport, travel outside the country, or get married without their guardian’s permission. Amal* is a 28-year-old woman living in the suburbs of a city in Saudi Arabia. She spoke to the Cut about how the guardianship system impacts her life.

My dad is my guardian, but for the majority of my life I didn’t think that my decisions — especially the big ones — were made by him. I was not physically forced into marriage or into a specific major in college; even when he forced two of my sisters to marry men they didn’t want to, I thought that he simply must know better than they do. But when I look back, I realize I was manipulated into thinking the choices he made for me were my own, even though I know now that they weren’t.

I’m unmarried, so I still live in my family’s home. I have to ask my father’s permission to leave our property and one of my brothers must escort me anywhere I go, even to places like the doctor. Usually I’m stuck in the house because women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive. (This will change in June when the ban is lifted, and I plan to get my license — and a motorcycle — as soon as possible). My brothers aren’t as conservative as my dad, but they are just as protective. They’re taught to behave this way by our male elders and by society; even if they wanted to be better, and I think that they do, it’s not easy for them. I know my father and brothers think everything they do for me is for my own good.

Even though I’m highly educated, I am unemployed because my father and brothers refuse to drive me to work at a job where men are present, and most of the all-female jobs I’m qualified for — like teaching or working at a bank — are extremely competitive. Many women in Saudi who work can also choose to hire a driver, but my family refuses to let me ride in a car with a male stranger. When I was 26, I applied for a prestigious scholarship that would allow for me to travel abroad; thousands of Saudis apply and I was one of the few chosen for an in-person interview in Riyadh. My father had encouraged me to apply, but when I told him I got the interview and I would pay for the plane ticket there myself, he refused to let me go. I lost out on the educational opportunity of a lifetime because he refused to escort me to Riyadh. So many of my friends who are from similar tribes are doctors or have scholarships in the United States because their parents let them stay there alone, but my father won’t give me that option.

Because I am such a strong-willed, opinionated person, I coped for a long time by going into complete denial. I convinced myself that every decision that my father made on my behalf was one I’d made on my own. It was easier for me to accept his decisions if I could believe that they were mine, too. I didn’t want to believe that I’m weak. I refused to believe that I was a 20-something whose dad chose everything for her. But now I know that he did then — and he still does. I feel numb about it all. It’s overwhelming to be almost 30 and my dad is still the one saying no to job opportunities because they don’t meet his very specific criteria.

I’m not sure what would happen if I decided to defy my dad. I’m not sure if he would involve the police, or the tribe, or if he would just disown me altogether. But it’s not just the material consequences that keep me from going against his wishes: I also love him, and respect him, and even after everything that’s happened I still want him to agree with my decisions. I feel paralyzed and like a failure, sometimes; I don’t know if it’s the actual guardianship system that is keeping me from moving out and getting a job and marrying the person I want to, or if it’s the fear and respect I have for my dad. Some days I just want to be able to take a meaningful step in my life without having to ask myself if my dad would agree with it or not. Usually I end up feeling that not fighting with him and keeping the peace in the house is the only option I have — but it’s me who ends up paying the price for going along with his decisions.

It would be amazing to be the one who decides something for once and to do it without asking permission, even something as small as going outside and taking a walk.

*Name has been changed. Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What It’s Like to Have a Male Guardian in Saudi Arabia