Last year, I drove with my family to Qatar to see the Museum of Islamic Arts that was recently opened in Doha. On the Saudi border, the conversation went something like this:
Customs officer: who is the woman with you?
Me: that’s my mother.
CO: where is her travel permit?
Me: why does she need a travel permit? She is traveling with me, her eldest son, and as you can see my two little brothers are in the back seat as well.
CO: okay, but you still need to show a travel permit for her.
Me: she is traveling with me. You think she would travel with me without my permission?
CO: these are the rules.
Me: well, I don’t have a travel permit for her.
CO: I will let you go this time, but next time you have to bring a travel permit if she is to travel with you or you can’t cross the border.
Me: okay. Thank you.
We have not traveled outside the country since then, but my mom has been nagging me to get a travel permit so we don’t have to go through this next time we are about to go somewhere. I have been putting that off, partly because I’m lazy, but more importantly because of my despise to the male guardianship system. I do not believe that my mother needs my permission to travel, or do anything she wants for that matter. My mom is an adult woman who is capable of making her own decision. I am not her guardian. I simply reject this notion.
But my politically motivated procrastination came to an end yesterday, as I went to the passports department here in Hofuf to get the damn paper.
Me: I would like to get a travel permit for my mother, please.
Passport officer: can you show me the Family ID card?
Me: I don’t have a Family ID. My father has passed away. Here is my ID card. Here is also a paper from the court to prove that I’m the eldest son.
PO: Is Bebi your sister?
Me: No, she is my mother.
The officer took a glance at the papers. He signed the travel permit and stamped it, and gave it to me along my mom’s passport and the other papers. I was glad that it did not take long, but I left the building with mixed feelings. In one hand I felt ashamed because although I hate the male guardianship system, I had to accept it and practice it like this. I felt as if I was a complicit in a crime. On the other hand, what could I have done? Backward and ridiculous as it is, in the end this is the system which governs us and you have to deal with it. Refusing to deal with it would only make life more difficult for mom, and everyone else.
Saudi Arabia has signed CEDAW, with two reservations. But as with all of these sorts of treaties, there is no mechanism to force the government to abide by its protocols, especially that some people in the country still see this as a huge international conspiracy to change our social and religious values.