A “fatwa” or edict issued by the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia declared that women are not allowed to visit a male doctor without a male guardian present. The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has confirmed the new ruling and will legally enforce it in the future. Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority believes that Islamic law cannot permit women to expose parts of their body to male doctors except in the case of medical emergencies. “Islamic jurisprudence does make exceptions” claimed a member of the Council of Senior Scholars.
Only next of kin qualify as male guardians in Islamic tradition, which includes fathers, brothers, sons, uncles and husbands but many Islamic women protest the rule on grounds that it is impractical. “This is going to be a huge burden for us. Many of us don’t have male guardians. Those of us who do, can’t depend on them, as they have work and travel commitments,” said Muneera Dawood, a stay-at-home mother.
The fatwa states that male doctors may examine female patients only if female doctors are unavailable and the patient has a male guardian. Doctor visits that violate these rules could have “negative implications” according to a member of the Council of Senior Scholars. This represents another major step backwards in women’s rights for Saudi Arabia, comparable to the ban on women driving though movements to repeal that ban are beginning to gain momentum.