The term mahram derives from the Arabic word haram (forbidden) and refers to those persons with whom sex is forbidden. For a Muslim women, these include (1) close male relatives by birth, (2) close male in-laws, (3) men who shared the same wet-nurse, (4) men of inferior social stations, and (5) non-Muslim men.
In Saudi Arabia, a whole system has evolved whereby the men in the first category – grandfathers, fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews, sons, grandsons, – share, along with the husband, enormous control over a woman's life. She cannot leave the house without their permission, making her like a prisoner.
Wajeha al-Huweidar, a Saudi subject, journalist, and human rights activist.
The Saudi woman "has no right to make decisions, and may not take a single step without the permission of … her guardian." Specifically, Saudi women "need the permission of their guardian to leave their home, their city or their country."
A woman in jail cannot "leave her cell when she has finished serving her sentence unless her guardian arrives to collect her. As a consequence, many Saudi women remain in prison just because their guardians refuse to come and get them."
The men of religion, the ulema, bear much responsibility for this state of affairs, for "the state has authorized [them] to oppress the women. … They suffocate [the women] in all areas of life by means of oppressive laws [enforced by] the religious police." They deny the Saudi woman "every opportunity to find a job, get an education, travel, receive medical treatment, or [realize] any [other] right, no matter how trivial, without the permission of their jailor, that is, their guardian – [all] based on oppressive fatwas sanctioned by the male [leaders] of the state."
"Although Saudi women are deprived of freedom and dignity more than any other women, they suffer all these forms of oppression and injustice in bitter silence, suppressed anger, and death-like dejection."
Things used to be better: "the mothers and grandmothers [of today's Saudi women] … enjoyed much greater freedom – as did all Muslim women in past eras, such as the wives of the Prophet.
The "oppressive mahram law … is not based on the tenets of Islam and in fact has nothing to do with Islam."
MEMRI also reports that Huweidar and other activists recently launched a campaign against the mahram law that reminds one of the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes (the one where women go on a sex strike). The campaign's slogan is "Treat us like adult citizens or we leave the country" and it was launched at the King Fahd Bridge connecting Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, the latter being notably less misogynist, where the women demanded the right to cross this border without a guardian's permission.
(1) The claim that the mahram law "has nothing to do with Islam" is an exaggeration, though it is true that most interpretations of Islam do not require it.
(2) Ironically, Saudi women are awakening to their oppression even as the niqab and burqa arrive in the West.
(3) Just as I see a race between Iran and Turkey (will the one throw off the Islamic regime before the other Islamizes?), so I see one between Saudi Arabia and, say, the United Kingdom (will the one throw off head coverings before the other puts them on?). (July 19, 2009)
Nov. 22, 2012 update: The ever-obliging Saudi state started a new service last week: mahrams can now receive text messages on their telephones from the immigration authorities when women under their custody leave the country. According to media reports, the new policy resulted from the recent escape to Sweden of a 30-year-old Saudi woman who converted to Christianity.