There is an assumption that women in Saudi Arabia do not have full rights to health care and cannot themselves provide consent for their own medical treatment or medical procedures. This particular belief is based on the common assumption that a Saudi woman must obtain permission from the man who is her legal guardian (father, husband or son) before she can obtain medical care.
This misconception exists not only in Western countries, but, unfortunately, also among Saudi women themselves and more importantly among some health care providers in the Kingdom.
As a consultant obstetrician, I encounter this situation very often in my work. Whenever I decide that my patient is unable to have a normal delivery and needs a caesarean section, my assisting doctors and nurses run to fetch the husband to take his approval and request him to sign the consent form for his wife’s operation.
When I looked into the Shariah law and the Ministry of Health regulations, I realized that this in fact constitutes a kind of malpractice done out of ignorance and negligence. The ministerial resolution implementing the regulations on the Practice of Medicine and Dentistry indicates that the Committee of Senior Ulema issued a clear statement in 1984 asserting that prior to delivering medical treatment or carrying out an operative procedure, the legally competent male or female patient’s consent must be obtained.
Last February, the Ministry of Health re-circulated this memorandum to all health care sectors emphasizing that the regulation should be adhered to and reconfirmed that a woman has the right to give her consent for medical and surgical procedures even for caesarean sections.
Unfortunately, there are still women who are not aware of their right to give consent for their medical treatment and what is worse is that some doctors also are not aware of these rights or they deny women these rights out of fear of encountering problems with male guardians. This practice can be dangerous and can waste time which may lead to medical catastrophes.
As doctors, we are responsible and required to empower ourselves and our medical students and to empower women with knowledge about their health rights. It is for this reason that the Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi scientific chair for Women’s Health Empowerment at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah was recently established to empower women and raise their awareness about their health rights and about health issues in general.
I believe that a woman has many rights but that one of the most important is her right to health care. Without good health, women cannot perform effectively as mothers, wives or citizens and help in the progress and development of the country. Empowering women in terms of their health rights has a great impact on women’s health and on the economy of the country, as healthy women mean a healthy society.
It is also important to recognize that it is our duty and responsibility to clarify the misconceptions and the wrong information in Human Rights Watch reports and other Western reports about the health rights of Saudi women, particularly their clear right to sign for their health care in the Kingdom, and to clarify how Shariah law and government regulations support the health rights of Saudi women.
On July 10, I gave a presentation at a forum organized by the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, USA and explained the above facts. On the last slide of my presentation was my picture driving a car along with the following statement:
“On the 4th of July – U.S. Independence Day – a Saudi woman was seen behind the wheel of an automobile! However, this was not a priority for her. What matters to her is having the ability to empower herself and other women in her country so that they are fully aware of their health rights.”