Talk by Hatoon Al Fassi sparks debate about male guardianship in the Gulf


Hatoon Al Fassi at SFS-Q, by Sana Hussain

Male guardianship laws in the Gulf violate women’s basic rights and must be curbed, said Hatoon Al Fassi, a distinguished professor of international affairs at Qatar University and a Saudi Arabian scholar in women’s rights, in a public talk organized by two student clubs at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Al Fassi, Ph.D., was invited by SFS-Q’s AlHilal Club and Women’s Development Centre to present her views on March 1 in the university’s auditorium. Al Fassi is also a professor at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, but according to Doha News she has been banned from teaching there since 2001.

The organizers of the event said they hoped the talk helped students to better understand the issue of male guardianship in the region. “With all the recent controversy surrounding Dr. Al Fassi, I believed it to be even more important to give her a platform in the name of free speech and the women’s movement,” said Mariam Diefallah, a senior at SFS-Q and one of the organizers of the talk. Al Fassi recently came under fire for her comments about women’s rights in the region after her students wrote a blog post titled, “Do Qatari women have rights?” The post tackled various issues faced by women in Qatar, including domestic violence and the low participation rate of women in local politics. It commented on the country’s absence of laws that criminalize domestic violence, and also condemned what the authors describe as the ongoing exclusion of Qatari women from local politics despite laws allowing all citizens the right to vote and stand in elections.

With all the recent controversy surrounding Dr. Al Fassi, I believed it to be even more important to give her a platform in the name of free speech and the women’s movement.”

— Mariam Diefallah

The post garnered negative attention from students and faculty at Qatar University. The Qatar University Debate Club also organized a talk about women in Islam on November 3, 2016, which was postponed because of student backlash on social media, who tweeted in Arabic the hashtag “I’m with the expulsion of Hatoon Al Fassi.” Some students and faculty from Qatar University also called for her removal from the position for having views that “cause damage to the Qatari Society”.

Many students, however, came out in support of Dr. Al-Fassi and her opinions. They also took to Twitter to advocate for civility and open discussion. One student tweeted “To the rigid, medieval and trivial minds. This is a debate between one opinion and another. Learn to listen even if it is from your enemies. Brains are a blessing.”

In her talk on March 1 at Georgetown, Al Fassi focused on Saudi Arabia and used verses from the Qur’an and Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad to prove her reasoning. Her arguments emphasized the Islamic principle of equal rights for men and women. On the male guardianship law in Saudi Arabia, Al Fassi said the country’s law states that “each female needs a male guardian at all stages of her life. He has the right to control her education, inheritance, go to the hospital and the list goes on.” She then used a Qur’anic verse, “The believing men and the believing women are allies of one another,” to counter it, explaining that men can support women but not make decisions on their behalf. With regards to women scholars such as herself, Al Fassi said, “We live in a different era with more female empowerment, which also requires women’s participation in scholarly publications about Islam.” Al Fassi also spoke about the inequality in citizenship in Saudi Arabia but acknowledged the growing roles of women in the political arena. “Indeed women in Saudi Arabia now have leading roles, like the five Saudis who got positions in the economic sector a while ago, which is a huge jump, but they still do not have the right to travel and such,” she said.

We live in a different era with more female empowerment, which also requires women’s participation in scholarly publications about Islam.”

— Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi

The audience included 167 students, faculty and staff not only from universities in Education City, but also from Qatar University. They also included some women who had come from Saudi Arabia specially to attend the talk. The reactions to the talk were varied. While most Qatari students in the audience seemed to support Al Fassi’s arguments, the women from Saudi Arabia dissented. In a post-talk question and answer session, Al Fassi addressed questions raised by the audience. A woman from Saudi Arabia, who did not agree with Al Fassi’s analysis, countered Al Fassi’s arguments and said “Quran is not a story but rather a constitution. My male guardian did not stop me from coming here, which means what you said about freedom is wrong and must be controlled as the religion is against women traveling alone. You do need a male guardian.”

However, Shua’a Sallam, a prospective student to SFS-Q, agreed with Al Fassi, particularly regarding women’s rights in Qatar. “Although the Qatari woman is more empowered, she still faces difficulties when traveling alone without a male’s signed agreement. She also has to reach the age of 25 whereas men don’t. Therefore, the Qatari woman did not get her full rights yet,” she said.

Several other women also had very strong reactions to Al Fassi’s opinions. Another Saudi woman said, “Anything written in the Quran must never be questioned. This is purely feminist, Western thinking.” She accused Al Fassi of ruining her country’s (Saudi Arabia) reputation, before angrily leaving the talk before it ended. But Ahmed Sabri, a student, disagreed. “Many tend to get defensive when discussing this issue, while it is not offensive as it discusses rights of individuals,” he said.

Others, including male students, agreed with Al Fassi’s opinions and reasoning. “It was a great start for a long overdue discourse,” Abdurahman Al-Thani, a senior at SFS-Q, said. “I wish to see more of this kind of activity in the future as this is the time when our society needs it most.”

Fahad A. Al-Kuwari, a Qatar-based filmmaker, took to Twitter to voice his support, tweeting: “Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi talk gave a push to the cultural movement in Qatar by opening up discussion between different schools of thought. Thank you Professor.”

“I personally think it has been a great start for the Women’s History Month and I look forward to more future events that would benefit all of us, regardless of our backgrounds or beliefs,” said Diefallah.

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