International Women’s Day

Saudi Arabia: the country where women are never legally adults

Women in Saudi Arabia finally gained the right to drive, and the country’s religious police have been reeled in. But for women to actually have personal freedom, the male guardianship system needs to be abolished.

Yousef Doubisi/AFP

Despite numerous PR campaigns aimed at improving Saudi Arabia’s image in the world, very few actual changes have been made to improve the lives of Saudi women. The highest profile change came in June 2018, when women in the kingdom gained the right to drive. But finally being able to take the wheel doesn’t mean that they are free. The real keys to women’s freedom are held by their husbands and male relatives who act as their legal guardians.

Not all guardians impose strict limitations on the women who fall under their authority. There are fathers, husbands and brothers who have modern mentalities, but there are also guardians who wield all of the power given to them by the guardianship system, making women’s lives a nightmare.

On March 4, Saudi Arabia’s consultative assembly, the Majlis al-Shura, rejected a proposal put forward by one of its members, Iqbal Drandari, calling for the implementation of Royal Decree 33322, issued in April 2018. The decree instructed various government departments to stop requiring women to seek authorization from their guardians to receive certain services. The consultative assembly published a statement saying that Drandari’s proposal was rejected because the decree is already being implemented.

Friction between conservatives and MBS?

Later the same afternoon, the assembly published a statement in the Al-Riyadh newspaper from spokesperson Mohammad al-Mohanna explaining that the assembly “has not taken a decision regarding the issue” and that the ad hoc committee is “still examining it”.

The mixed messages about the proposal could suggest that the assembly is caught between the recently empowered Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and his supporters and the kingdom’s old guard. It could also mean that the assembly is trying to buy some time by blocking, or at least delaying, MBS’s reforms.

In the meantime, Drandari didn’t back down. In an interview with the newspaper Okaz she called the assembly’s statement “ambiguous” and criticized “significant delays in the Ministry of the Interior in granting or renewing passports and other documents related to travel” for women.

The issue is particularly relevant now following the case of Rahaf al-Qunun, a young Saudi woman who had been abused by her relatives and who made headlines when she escaped during a family trip to Kuwait, seeking refuge in Thailand and eventually Canada. Al-Qunun, 18, has given many interviews to the international press shedding light on living conditions in Saudi Arabia for girls her age.

Many young Saudi women have their futures predetermined for them. They will be required to marry a man from their family or clan and will only be able to work or travel with their husband’s consent. Although 49 percent of Saudi women attended university, according to 2015 statistics from the Ministry of Education, only 20 percent of women with a university degree were employed.

The guardianship system means that women in the kingdom will never really be free. Instead, they are treated as minors their entire lives. The majority will also always wear a black abaya, clothing dictated by custom, not religion, as Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq said last November. Al-Mutlaq is one of Saudi Arabia’s esteemed theologians, an adviser to the royal cabinet and the president of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue. But his words did not have much of an effect. All but a small handful of women continued to wear the long, bulky black robes, showing the power of social and familial pressure in Saudi to suppress the desire for female emancipation.

"Notified" of their own divorce

After allowing women to drive, dismantling the guardianship system would seem like a logical next step, especially because a the requirement for a guardian’s authorization is applied arbitrarily across different sectors of the Saudi government. In her interview with Okaz, Dandari highlighted that “nothing in the law requires a woman to provide an authorization from her guardian to obtain or renew a passport”.

Still, many young women lose university scholarships abroad because people working in the passport office have been told not to give them a passport without the consent of a guardian. “The royal decree is supposed to trump these instructions,” Dandari said.

"Some 70-year-old women are asked for their son's permission to seek treatment abroad," she continued, adding: "It is time to put an end to this tragedy."

So far, most reforms in Saudi Arabia have been superficial and linked to entertainment. Only the March 2016 decision to reduce the power of the religious police has really been a source of hope for women. The religious police, or mutawa, can no longer attack women directly or beat them with sticks if their veils are poorly placed or their hands are exposed. But this change is not nearly enough.

Saudi women can be divorced by their husbands without even being informed that it happened. This practice of “secret divorce” is so common that authorities decided to end it in January. Saudi women now have to be notified that they have been repudiated, but still don’t have a say in the matter. "Women… will be notified of any changes in their marital status via an SMS," the Ministry of Justice said in a statement. "Women in the kingdom will be able to consult documents related to the breakdown of their marriage contract via the ministry's website.”

Despite these few changes, there has been no discussion of changing the laws that relate to women’s lives overall. Women still do not have the right to work without the authorization of a guardian, even though a royal decree was issued a year ago that called for this requirement to be removed. Some departments are resisting the decree and refuse to hire women without permission from their guardians. The same is true for women who want to go to university or to travel, no matter how old. The government also set up the Absher system, an electronic portal to facilitate administrative procedures, which recently came under international criticism for allowing men to monitor women’s movements. But denouncing the portal is useless because it only reflects laws that have been in place for decades.

Given this backdrop, what were Saudi women expecting on the occasion of International Women’s Day? One woman, Noura, said she was hoping that “freedom of choice is preserved and protected”. Another, Fatima, was even more cautious, saying: "I hope that the safety and security of this country are preserved and the economy is once again in a golden age.” Finally, Nouf chose to address the occasion with humor. "I hope they will cancel the U-turns on the highway and they remove the street bumps so that I can finally drive properly,” she said.

The women seemed to deliberately avoid speaking about the condition of women in the country.

Climate of terror

At the moment, women seem to support MBS, who they perceive to be a defender of their cause. This is despite the climate of terror he has created since the May 2018 arrests of female activists who pushed for an end to the driving ban and who, for decades, have been fighting for the emancipation of Saudi women.

As a result of the arrests, very few Saudis dare to express themselves on social media. The ones who still do use nicknames, and most of them reside abroad. On Twitter, a user named @A? Said: “Power for Saudi women, and not just Reema bint Bandar”, referring to the recently appointed Saudi ambassador to the United States.

It is a time of terror in the kingdom, with security and intelligence services everywhere, especially monitoring social media networks. Everything and everyone is under constant surveillance, and a word can literally lead to people being put in prison. Driving rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef, human rights defender Eman al-Nafjan, lawyer and women’s rights defender Ibrahim al-Modeimigh and the young activist Mohammed al-Rabea all know this all too well. Since their arrests in May 2018, there has been no news or updates about their situation.

Despite numerous PR campaigns aimed at improving Saudi Arabia’s image in the world, very few actual changes have been made to improve the lives of Saudi women. The highest profile change came in June 2018, when women in the kingdom gained the right to drive. But finally being able to take the wheel doesn’t mean that they are free. The real keys to women’s freedom are held by their...

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