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