Saudi Arabia: Can’t Get Enough of the Mahrem System

The debate page on American Bedu has been quite active lately.  In particular the issue of rights for Saudi women has been under discussion.  It’s natural for such a topic to segue to the Saudi Mahrem System.  A regular of American Bedu, Strange One (her choice of name, not mine!), posted some good questions.  Rather than have them lost or diluted in the myriad of threads on the Debate page, I’ve chosen to make these questions and their answers a separate topic of discussion.

For those not aware, in Saudi Arabia every woman requires a mahrem.  A mahrem is an official guardian who has the authority and the right to make decisions on behalf of the woman.  It is up to a mahrem whether a woman can be educated; travel; work; have a bank account; and own a business, for starters.

1 What does the law say specifically about the Mahrem system?

While it is difficult to obtain specific laws about the Mahrem system and especially the law as it relates to Saudi Arabia, the following links provide some insight and detail.

The following is the link when conducting a search for mahrem on the official site for the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs:

2. How do most families interpret it? How does it affect the daily lives of most women? How open are their family members to letting the women do what they please? Is it just a formality, or is it something that is strictly enforced in most families? How is it enforced?

The interpretation of the mahrem system can vary family to family.  However, in Saudi Arabia, the mahrem system does affect and impact the lives of all Saudi women and foreign women who have married a Saudi.  Even in spite of my American passport, I could not open a bank account without a letter from my husband.  An employer would not officially hire me until I had a signed letter by my husband and official verification of our marriage.

The mahrem can truly control what is and is not available to a woman in Saudi Arabia.  This can include education, business, travel and even provision of medical care.  It is not simply a formality nor something that is necessarily strictly enforced by families but by the Saudi government.  Without appropriate documentation from a mahrem or the personal appearance of a mahrem, a woman will be prohibited and restricted from some activities.

3. How do most Saudi females feel about it? Why?

The views of Saudi women on the mahrem system are not consistent.  Some Saudi women are content and satisfied with the mahrem system.  They welcome having their mahrem oversee and make decisions on their behalf.  Some women are also satisfied with the mahrem system yet in these cases they may have a mahrem who is very accommodating to their wishes and desires.  Some women feel high disdain and dislike for the mahrem system either because they feel prohibited by the system and/or do not believe their mahrem has their best interests at heart.  The following links are of earlier interviews American Bedu held with Saudi women and all, in some capacity, touch upon the mahrem system.

4. How do most Saudi males feel about it? Why?

In most of my own personal experiences in speaking with Saudi men about the mahrem system, most Saudi men view it as a part of life and tradition in Saudi Arabia.  There are some, which did include my own husband, who viewed it as an archaic and outdated system.  There will be opposing views among men just as there are among women on this topic.  Again, I’ve chosen to provide links of earlier interviews with Saudi men who share their views.

5. How does this affect me? This is something that I would have to talk to my beloved about as well as his family.  How does his family interpret it? How open minded are they?

The mahrem system will impact on any woman married to a Saudi and/or any Saudi woman.  She will require a mahrem.  How it affects her will depend on the tradition and views of the man who is her mahrem.  A woman should also have her eyes open that if something happens to the man who will be her mahrem, who would replace him and what are his views and traditions?  No one mahrem is alike, even within families.  One way to learn how a family follows the mahrem system can be in what entitlements and/or freedoms a woman has in a family.  Is she able to work when and where she chooses?  Is she allowed to pursue educational dreams?  Does she have her own bank account?  Can she travel freely?  Or must she always be accompanied?  Can she see a doctor anytime and at her own will?

29 Responses

  1. If the woman is married, does the husband always serve as her mahrem?

  2. AD, Everything I’ve read suggests that it is a matter of Islamic law that if a woman is married, only her husband can serve as her mahram.

  3. Okay-thank you, caraboska. I assume that the mahrem precedent or tradition was established by Muhammad himself, and that this is supported by specific passages of the Qur’an or Hadith, yes?

  4. AD…

    No, as far as I know the mahrem tradition is not in the Qur’an and hadith. It is a purely cultural phenomenon unique to Saudi Arabia.

  5. It is based on a couple (or maybe they’re together) verses in the Quran. Forgive no reference, it’s off the top of my head-
    something like because “Men are the maintainers of women”
    “Men have a degree of advantage over women…”

    Of course these things have been interpreted into the current system. Obviously, men do have a degree of advantage (practically speaking they do- and sadly I think it really comes down to brute strength)- therefore one would think their responsibility is to assist women to gain their rights rather than control them, and take them away. But that’s just me.

    Also it is not only found in Saudi. At least needing your Mahrams permission (usually father) to marry is needed in other countries as well.

  6. Men also have the advantage over women in inheriting: they get much larger shares than sisters, widows get a pittance. And as the quran also states that one man’s testimony equals that of two women I take it that the men who wrote the quran not only made sure that over time most of the wealth would be held by men, but they also thought, wholly erroneously, that women were by default far more stupid then men.

    I thought that a mahrams permission was only instated for a woman’s first marriage?
    And the mahram system invented by Saudi Arabia has been made more severe over the last decades as it was ever before.

  7. Helpful info/insights-thank you, all!

  8. The mahrem system is shall we say, strongest and most visible, within Saudi Arabia. Islam does require a mahrem for marriage. In my case, when my husband and I had another Islamic marriage prior to travel to Saudi Arabia the iman acted as my mahrem. (we had had two previous marriage ceremonies but the gov’t wanted an islamic ceremony from a known facility for ease of processing our documents)

    I do know of a few circumstances where the husband is not the official mahrem. This is where the marriage has not been approved yet and the wife has obtained a position in KSA and therefore her employer is her sponsor/mahrem. That also means that even though she and her husband have been married, without the official gov’t approval, they should not be living together as he is not recognized as her mahrem.

  9. Sorry I haven’t commented on here yet; I’ve been quite busy lately. Thank you very, very, very much!!! for this post!!!!! I really appreciate it! 🙂 And thank you to everyone who comments/has commented on this topic! 🙂

  10. This system is definitely outdated.
    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2001. Under CEDAW, the kingdom is obliged to end discriminatory practices against women, such as the system of male guardianship.
    KSA is violating its own commitments.

  11. @Sandy…

    It is required for marriege but is it also required for other things like in KSA. On another post a Muslim person awhile back said it was only in KSA where women need to have permission of men to do most everything.(outside of marriage).

  12. @Oby,
    I understood someone to say that it only is a phenomenon in KSA. I gave the marriage example as an application in other countries as well. I know very well the extent of the Mahrem system in KSA- I live here.

  13. @Aafke. Those are examples of the different treatment of men and women but not of the Mahrem system per say.

    Yes, many believe permission is for the first marriage only. In KSA it’s permission for everything.

    I’m not familiar with the exact document you are talking about Saudi ratifying- I do know Saudi often, as well as other Islamic states, as they sign or ratify, add something along the lines as “as long as it doesn’t go against Islam”- and then of course, they can implement just the parts they want.

    I think there were several relevant to women’s rights issues in the WTO membership. And that is the one arena where some progress is being made. Although it is painfully slow. And of course just because women can legally work in most sectors now- that doesn’t mean anyone will hire them or that their “Mahrems” will let them.

  14. Sandy

    I wasn’t trying to tell you about the system…I was asking a question.(forgot the question mark) What I was asking (and obviously poorly) was other than marriage, in other Muslim countries do women need a mahrem to do other things like in KSA? I had read someone said it was required for marriage in other places but the system in KSA encompasses everything but other Muslims countries do not have it like KSA does. Is that correct?

  15. @Sandy:

    Declarations and reservations by SAUDI ARABIA made upon ratification, accession or succession of the CEDAW


    “1. In the case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.

    2. The Kingdom does not consider itself bound by paragraph 2 of article 9 of the Convention and paragraph 1 of article 29 of the Convention.”

    paragraph 2 of article 9 states:
    States Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children.

    paragraph 1 of article 29 states:
    Any dispute between two or more States Parties concerning the interpretation or application of the present Convention which is not settled by negotiation shall, at the request of one of them, be submitted to arbitration. If within six months from the date of the request for arbitration the parties are unable to agree on the organization of the arbitration, any one of those parties may refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice by request in conformity with the Statute of the Court.

  16. @Winner,

    Can you provide a link for CEDAW? I’d like to read more.

  17. @American Bedu
    here is the full text of CEDAW

  18. @American bedu

    you may also have a read of the country report submitted by the KSA under the country report section:

    Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are required to submit national reports every 4 years outlining the measures taken to comply with their treaty obligations.

  19. There are three closely related concepts here worth examining a bit separately- your kafeel is your sponsor for visa purposes (any non-Saudi will need one), your wali amr is (if you are a woman or a minor) your official legal guardian as the law does not “recognize” you as a legal entity with the full rights accorded to a fully responsible human being, and a mahram is one of a small pool of male relatives where the degree of consanguinity is too high for a marriage under Islamic norms.

    The kafeel system often gets overlooked but is a mechanism for sponoring Saudi citizens to control the physical movements and societal access of foreigners brought to the kingdom to work on their behalf. A wide array of monkey business goes down here, from Saudis and agencies that sponsor third country nationals and then pass them to other business or private entities to the type of abuse seen recently in a Sri Lankan maid whose kafeel is reported to have inserted numerous nails and needles into her arms, legs, hands, feet, and chest.

    The wali amr is most often what people are talking about when they use the phrase mahram. For example, the Saudi gov’t’s “aqd an-niqah” or wedding contract form has no space for the bride to sign (as she is not legally recognizable as a competent authority unto herself) but instead her wali amr signs for her. There is (to my knowledge) only one wali amr at a time and the law turns to this person to approve or deny decisions regarding employment, travel, education, custody, business contracts, ect.

    The mahram is a person who can physically chaperone a woman without questions being asked. A mahram is a man who can be alone with a woman without questions of khulwa being raised. This is primarily a cultural phenomenon- women go out in single sex groups without male supervision often in Saudi. However, there are families that guard the sexual reputation of their female members by requiring that women be accompanied by a mahram while traveling in public.

    The Saudi government requires that all female Saudi scholarship students abroad have a mahram physically present with them while abroad. Often this mahram is not their wali amr (such as a father or husband) but instead just a brother (sometimes significantly younger in age and maturity) who is with her to preserve her sexual “honor” and thus defend the family’s good name.

    Let me know if I’ve mixed any of this up.

  20. @Sandy and American Bedu

    Many countries have raised objections to the following KSA reservation:
    Declarations and reservations by SAUDI ARABIA made upon ratification, accession or succession of the CEDAW


    “1. In the case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the convention.

    Here is an example from Spain:

  21. That seems right- but I signed my own wedding certificate in Saudi.

  22. @ Winner,
    Those “reservations” were exactly the sort of thing I was refering to. I’m not sure what the point in signing things- if you grant yourselfs exceptions to the main issues.

  23. @sandy
    actually that reservation that many countries have objected to is incompatible with Article 28(2) which states as under:
    A reservation incompatible with the object and purpose of the present Convention shall not be permitted.

    weird! its like the KSA govt. saying, “we have signed and not signed as well”. casts serious doubts on KSA’s commitment. very typical of that country and other countries in that region.
    All these countries are basically medieval dictatorships.
    I hope we discover an alternative energy source soon so that Middle East oil can be boycotted.

  24. F’s family is 50 -50, few of the brothers have strict intertretations of this system, their wives are provided all so they are fine but if they need ot go to a dr they need to go with the mahrem, also they have never travelled outside saudi – ever so that question doesn’t arise. some hate it most don’t mind, but the men don’t tink it’s an ordeal and infact insist on it.

    The other 50% of the men , incl F are lax, dont care about it, don’t enfore it. don’t interfere and provide all documents to make sure their presence is not mandated. I can only speak for F and he’s v irritated by it, he thinks it’s a nuisance and a pain and reduces productivity. that and being made a driver in the evenigns were his pet peeves while we were there.

    He always said it should be made optional atleast, those men /women who want to be within the mahrem system great, but for those who consider it a nuisance must e able to be free of it..

    oh well – time will tell when change will come i guess.

  25. @ Sandy- I’m actually really curious- I’ve seen tons of Saudi gov’t marriage certs “lil-Saudiyeen” and they all have only the wali amr slot. May I assume you are not a Saudi citizen? I know there are separate birth and death certifications for non-Saudi citizens. Is there a separate “aqd an-niqah” form for marriages between Saudis and non-Saudi? Or are you refering to a separate marriage contract signed at the masjid or elsewhere by the imam & ect? I ask out of curiosity… I love the ins and outs of Saudi documents.


  26. […] (guardian) prefer not to have a woman fill her natural and traditional role?  After all, the male mahrem is responsible for all the needs of the single woman until she marries and then her husband becomes […]

  27. I would like to know what Islam says about a Muslim woman jumping out of her marriage contract with a man and without her hurband ‘s knowledge and consent, flies from India to Saudia Arabia for a job. How the Saudia Arabia has allowed such a woman to enter into the Saudi Kingdom..

  28. I would like to know what Islam says about a Muslim woman jumping out of her marriage contract with a muslim man and without her hurband ‘s knowledge and consent, flies from India to Saudia Arabia for a job. How the Saudia Arabia has allowed such a woman to enter into the Saudi Kingdom..

  29. If she entered the Kingdom under false pretenses or fraudulent documents you can go to the Saudi Embassy in India with this information. I can not say what would happen after that though.

    Of course from an Islamic point the actions are wrong.

    However I think it would also be important to know her side of the story. Why did she feel the need to in essence to run away from her husband to another country? Was she being abused?

    I say this as there are always two sides to every story.

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