Saudi women at a cinema after the lifting of a decades-old ban. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine
Saudi women at a cinema after the lifting last year of a decades-old ban. Saudi announced Wednesday that women will now be permitted to serve in the armed forces. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine

A Saudi court of appeals this week ruled that a 38-year-old woman who manages a bank cannot marry the man of her choice against her brother’s wishes, a stark reminder of the enduring male guardianship system in a country implementing major social and economic changes.

The court upheld a ruling made two years ago in favor of her brother’s argument: “The man is not equally faithful.” The woman has vowed to keep fighting against her family’s objections.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative countries, has over the past year lifted a ban on women driving, allowed mixed-gender concerts and re-opened cinemas after a decades-long ban. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his early thirties, is widely viewed as the architect behind those sweeping changes.

The latest court ruling caused a wave of criticism and mockery on social media among many Saudis who less than one year ago witnessed the crown prince pledge a “moderate, open” Saudi Arabia.

“Seventy per cent of the Saudi population is under 30, and we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once,” he told foreign investors at a Riyadh conference in October 2017, in an apparent challenge to hardliners.

Brother disapproves

The woman, whose name has not been revealed in the press, has been dubbed the “Onaiza girl” after her home city in the central province of Al-Qassim. In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Okaz, she said: “I will not keep quiet. I will apply for mercy.”

Seven years ago, her uncle had approved the marriage, but the union was halted when a brother refused to approve it. The woman’s brother alleged that the man, a teacher, was not equally religious to his sister.

The general court in Onaiza sided with the immediate family member, agreeing that the marriage lacked “equivalence.”

The teacher recently proposed again, but her brothers said no, and one of them told the court the would-be groom was seen playing oud, a traditional Arabic musical instrument.

The woman challenged the initial ruling at a court of appeals, submitting two pieces evidence: one asserting that one of the eyewitnesses to the oud playing was lying, and the other, a written endorsement from the mosque preacher and the teacher’s colleagues affirming his commitment to prayer and honesty.

This week, the court upheld the initial ruling that “the man who plays music is not equally faithful.”

The ruling comes as Crown Prince Mohammed works to project a moderate image of the kingdom, long associated with a fundamentalist strain of Wahhabi Islam.

The woman has pointed out the irony of her situation: she holds a leading post in a bank supervising more than 300 employees, and at the same time is considered unqualified to deal with her personal issues. Now she faces the prospect she will never marry and remain under the control of her brothers.

Social media outcry

On social media, many Saudis expressed discontent with the ruling.

In a video aired on Saudi Arabia’s Khalejia TV, with more than 1 million Twitter followers, a presenter asked: “Where did this new ‘inequality’ concept come from?”

Turki Shabanat, a Saudi Twitter user, mocked the court ruling, asking if the teacher “was seen holding a bomb, not an oud?”

Saudi women over the past year have gained significant rights, including the ability to open their own businesses without the consent of a male relative.

But many restrictions remain, and the modernization drive has been accompanied by a crackdown on political activity.

In June, the government arrested 17 citizens who had campaigned for the rights of women to drive and for the end of the male guardianship system.

For women like the bank manager from Onaiza, the battle for personal freedoms continues.