Saudi women celebrate easing of guardianship system, call for more freedoms

Sunday 21/05/2017
Steps forward. Saudi women walk on a street during Saudi National Day in Riyadh. (Reuters)

London - Women in Saudi Ara­bia celebrated a royal decree eas­ing aspects of the kingdom’s male guardianship system, granting them independent access to gov­ernment services, jobs, education and health care.

Directives from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud stated that women in the kingdom no longer need a male guardian’s consent to access public services “unless there is a legal basis for this request, in accordance with the provisions of Islamic sharia.”

Government agencies are re­quired to reflect the new changes on their official websites and have three months to restructure and implement the new orders while providing officials with a list of services that might require guard­ian approval for consideration. The agencies are also tasked with rais­ing awareness of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Before the changes, Saudi wom­en needed a mahram (male guard­ian) — usually a father, brother or husband — to accompany them or give written consent to access jobs, school or health care.

Maha Akeel, of the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Coopera­tion, said the changes deliver an opportunity to re-evaluate the en­tire system.

“Now at least it opens the door for discussion on the guardian system,” Akeel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Women are independent and can take care of themselves.”

The royal decrees stop short of giving women the right to travel without a guardian’s consent or the complete dissolution of the guardi­anship system, which activists have called for.

However, many called it a signifi­cant move. “We are one step ahead, this is good news,” wrote UK-based Saudi student Rawan al-Rayes on her Twitter account. Online Saudi activist Maha Saad said the devel­opments were the “start of some­thing great; Freedom Will Win At The End.”

The movement to drop the male guardianship system in Saudi Ara­bia has been going on for almost six years but has only generated signif­icant results in the last few years.

The online grass-roots move­ment celebrated several small vic­tories during that period, starting with the late King Abdullah bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud allowing women to join the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council in 2011, followed by the first participation of Saudi women at the Olympics. In 2013, the king­dom pledged for the second time to the United Nations that it would re­view and nullify the guardianship system.

Last September, a petition signed by nearly 15,000 Saudi women urg­ing King Salman to end the coun­try’s male guardianship system was posted to the government. This came after an unsuccessful attempt by Riyadh-based women’s activist Aziza al-Yousef to deliver it personally to the royal court.

At that time, the Arabic hashtag “Saudi women want to abolish the guardianship system” trended on social media for months, par­ticularly on Twitter, which has an estimated 2.4 million active Saudi users, the highest number of any country in the region. The latest events have led to the same hashtag trending again.

The royal decrees specified that government agencies should force employers to provide transporta­tion for female employees, an as­pect that pro-women Saudi activi­ties might construe as a setback to their campaign to lift the ban on women driving in the kingdom.

A scheduled session of the Shura Council aimed at discussing an In­terior Ministry report’s recommen­dation on the women’s driving ini­tiative was postponed.

The Riyadh-based Okaz news­paper said members of the council were informed 48 hours before the session of the postponement, with the possibility of having the dis­cussion before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Sources told Okaz that the coun­cil’s Security Committee failed to draft coherent recommendations regarding the women’s driving initiative, describing what was pre­sented as “weak” and “unfeasible” and saying it was rejected at a Gen­eral Assembly meeting in April.

Commenting on the delay on Twitter, Yousef wrote: “I don’t know why the women’s driving dossier has become one of the most difficult files to pass, bearing in mind that more complex issues have passed through the bottle­neck smoothly.”

Saudi Arabia is implementing its Vision 2030 social and economic reform plan, designed to diversify its economy away from the energy sector. Creating opportunities and improving living standards for the kingdom’s female populace factor heavily in its plans.