A leading human rights watchdog said courts in Saudi Arabia empower men to abuse their positions as guardians of female relatives _ sometimes jailing adult women for "disobedience" when they seek control of their personal lives.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that Saudi court rulings have enabled male family members to prevent, end or force the marriages of adult women and seize custody of their children.
"Saudi judges have elevated a father's authority to a pillar of law," Human Rights Watch spokesman Christoph Wilcke said in the report. "The result of unquestioned fatherly authority far too often has been family strife and unwarranted suffering for the adult children."
The report was obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Saudi state law is based on Islamic sharia law, which governs many personal status issues like marriage, child custody and inheritance in the context of the wider family structure.
Under Saudi law, women must obtain permission from a male guardian _ a father, husband, brother or son _ to travel abroad, access certain government services or marry. Some hospitals require a guardian's permission before they or their children can undergo certain medical procedures.
The HRW report cited the case of one woman, over the age of 30, whose father placed her in a mental institution then locked her in the house because she wanted to marry a man whose tribe her father considered inferior. The woman escaped to a shelter for abused women and sued her father for preventing her marriage _ a crime in Saudi Arabia.
She won the case _ which canceled her father's guardianship status _ but he has appealed three times, HRW said. The last time, the court referred the case to the public prosecutor to charge the woman for "illegal seclusion" with her fiance.
The case is still open, the report said, but the woman remains in the shelter, which she can't leave without written permission from her father.
The report also cites the case of Samar Badawi, 29, who also won a case against her father for forbidding her to marry. The father has appealed the ruling, the report said, but his daughter remains in prison awaiting another trial _ her father has sued her for "disobedience."
Both cases are still pending.
When asked about the report's charges, Judge Ahmad al-Hakami in the southern Saudi town of Jizan said Islam protects women's rights.
"We don't pay attention to what others say about us, and we will not give up our Islamic principles," he said. "Just as the West doesn't accept religious principles as a base, in the same way we won't let anyone to speak badly of Islam."
(This version CORRECTS information on Badawi case. )