My Face Is My Existence: Saudi Women And IDs
Some women’s rights activists have praised a new law in Saudi mandating photo IDs for women.
By Hind Aleryani, October 28, 2012
“My face is my human identity, the proof of my very existence. Wake up, women of the Arab Peninsula, rebel against being non-existent,” Tweeted activist Lama al-Zahrani in support for the recent decision in Saudi Arabia making it compulsory for women to carry state IDs on them. “Unfortunately,” she told NOW, “when the Shura Council issued the ruling, some judges and other sheikhs who are well-known in media circles were opposed to it.” This is because an official ID would bear an actual photo of its female holder. However, Zahrani believes that the sheikhs’ objection to the photo IDs is merely a pretext, the main problem being fear that women will break free of their male dominance.
Nawwara, another Saudi activist, agreed, saying, “There are concerns regarding the autonomy of women, as they fear we will have more demands. Others, still, want to exploit women [who don’t have state picture IDs]. For instance, a father may take a loan or buy and sell stocks in his daughter’s name using the family [identification] card, and leave her to handle the repayment. In other cases, a brother may seize his sister’s inheritance by bringing in a woman wearing a niqab, claiming that she is his sister and having her sell her share of inheritance.”
Zahrani says that she knows from personal experience that the law is not being implemented and that picture IDs are merely useful with regard to social matters when divorced and widowed women get alimony. As for other parts of life, an ID is not enough, as a woman is required to bring along a male “identifier” or guardian whenever she leaves the house.
“The problem is that we mix customs, traditions and laws, and men’s opportunism plays a part in that,” says Saudi lawyer and legal counselor Abdullah al-Aazzaz. “Being a patriarchal society, we ban women from gaining their autonomy under the pretext of protecting them while, in truth, we seek to repress or dominate them. A brother or father may lie to a woman and tell her he cannot open a bank account using her ID and she’d believe that, whereas this is not true.”
As for passports, a Saudi woman cannot obtain one or even travel if she is not accompanied by her guardian. Nawwara was luckier than others, as her father decided to grant her a license to travel for as long as her passport is valid. This is not the case for most guardians, who stipulate that any trip abroad should have their prior approval. “She who does not have an identifier is done for. It is truly a shame for a 15-year-old to have the right to be your identifier and guardian,” Nawwara says.
This does not hold true for trips to Gulf countries. Saudi women are, at last, allowed to go to Gulf countries using their IDs rather than their passports and if any woman wants to go to any other state from there, she does not need the approval of an identifier or guardian.
The state ID decision caused major turmoil on social media, as many hailed it as a gradual step toward granting Saudi women the right to travel. “Women are more aware of their rights thanks to the internet. Many issues pertaining to women’s rights are being discussed on Twitter, which is displaying a noticeable increase in female traffic,” Zahrani says. “Female jurists have a clear influence in raising Saudi society’s awareness and showing it what is happening, which induced change – no matter how small – in society’s vision of women.”
“The concept of women has changed. Instead of being referred to as mothers and wives, they are now seen as a woman with their own existence and spirit.”
This article is a translation of the original, which was posted on the NOW Arabic site on Monday October 8, 2012.