Saudi Arabia has long been known for limiting women’s rights with its onerous male guardianship system. However, recently King Salman issued an order that allows Saudi women to benefit from services such as education and access to healthcare without requiring prior permission from their male guardian. If his order is fully implemented, it could be a small step in the right direction for one of the world’s most restrictive societies.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), on 17 April 2017 the king issued an order proclaiming that government agencies can no longer deny women without a male guardian’s permission access to certain government services unless existing regulations already require the guardian’s consent. The order also required the agencies to present to the king a comprehensive list of programs and procedures that require the consent of a male guardian within three months.
Maha Akeel, a director at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation located in Jedda and an activist for the rights of women, cautiously praised the order, stating, “Now at least it opens the door for discussion on the guardian system.” She acknowledged that the order could mean that women could study, access treatment at a hospital, work in the public and private sectors, and represent themselves in court without a male guardian. However, she also noted that those opportunities would only be in some cases. She added that male guardianship is, “un-Islamic and humiliating for women.”
Saudi law rarely explicitly codifies what services for women require a male guardian’s consent. Thus, if this order is fully implemented, it will be a small step towards progress. However, HRW points out, that the order does nothing to revoke previously established procedures that require male permission, such as traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, and getting married. Likewise, the order only applies to government agencies, exempting private industries that also often require male guardian approval. For example, many employers will not hire women unless their guardians permit it, and landlords often refuse to rent to women unless they have the approval of their male guardian.
Because of these drawbacks, this reform may be only another small policy revision made to achieve the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to reform the country’s economy and better the general well-being of citizens by the year 2030. Some steps, like this one, are benefitting women. Another example came earlier this month when the Saudi Ministry of Education announced a new policy to allow Saudi girls to participate in physical education classes.
While these steps provide women slightly more freedom, they are only minor concessions. Realistically, these changes are slight when measured against the immense burden placed on women by the guardianship system. Guardianship binds a woman to a male guardian, first her father, then her husband, and sometimes her brother or even son. This level of control effectively makes women legal minors. In this system, women must seek their male guardian’s permission to undertake everyday activities such as leaving the house, applying for employment, or working. As part of the guardianship system, women are also prohibited from driving.
While King Salman’s order, if fully implemented, could provide Saudi women greater access to government benefits and services, it falls far short of a total repeal of the guardianship system. Because the order does not address the deep-seated and systematic nature of gender discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia, this may prove to be yet another half-hearted attempt by the Saudi government to bring about change. In the end, Saudi women will only be able to realize equality with full repeal of the guardianship system. The Government of Saudi Arabia must totally revoke the guardianship system in order to provide all its citizens equal opportunities and to live up to the standards of its membership in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Alex DiBell in an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.
Photo courtesy of TIME.