Women in Saudi Arabia scored a significant victory earlier this month, after they were allowed to travel abroad without obtaining permission from a male guardian, apply for passports, and register their marriages and divorces. In highly conservative Saudi Arabia, these steps, deemed natural almost everywhere else in the world, constitute key social reforms.
The government’s decision was reported by the Umm al-Qura Gazette, a publication that carries Saudi royal decrees.
The importance of the step for women’s rights notwithstanding, both critics and detached observers noted that the dismantling of the kingdom’s rigid ‘male guardianship’ system was probably only an effort to deflect from its deeply questionable human rights record, which includes the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul recently.
Under the new rules, Saudi women would be able to travel abroad without needing to seek approval from their male guardians. They would also be able to apply for a passport by themselves upon turning 21. The reforms place Saudi women on a par with the men with regard to the freedom to travel.
Women will now also be able to register their marriage, divorce, or the birth of their children, as well as obtain family documents. Women can register as the co-head of a household with the husband, which will make it easier for them to secure Saudi national identity cards.
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Women can now also be the legal guardian of their children, a position hitherto reserved for men.
The reforms bar employers from discrimination based on gender, disability, or age.
This step comes after a sequence of moves aimed at ensuring that women can join Saudi Arabia’s workforce, beginning earlier this decade when the oil-rich nation began to allow women-only workplaces to operate, giving them some respite from the country’s strict Abaya dress code.
Among global companies to set shop under this scheme were Indian tech giants TCS and Wipro, who opened all-women Business Process Services (BPS) centres there in 2013 and 2017 respectively.
In 2012, Saudi Arabia for the first time sent two female participants to the Summer Olympic games held in London.
In 2015, women were able to contest municipal elections. Although only 20 women were elected as opposed to more than a thousand male councillors, their appearance on the political horizon was seen as a breakthrough.
The next year, Saudi Arabia officially declared its intention to increase the number of women in its workforce from 22% from that year to 30% by 2030.
The country’s infamous driving ban for women was done away in 2018. In September that year, a female anchor presented the news broadcast on Saudi television for the first time.
And in February this year, Saudi Arabia sent a female envoy to the United States, its first female ambassador.
The ‘male guardianship’ system
The ‘Wilayah’ system, as it is called in Arabic, is said to be based on verse 4:34 of the Koran, which describes men as the “protectors” and “maintainers” of women. An orthodox interpretation of the verse by the Saudi Arabian clergy led to the creation of the said guardianship system, which places women in the custody of a male guardian, called Wali.
The Wali is generally the husband, father, or son, and has the power to make decisions that critically affect a woman’s life. These included, until the latest reforms, matters such as health, finances, children, and travel.
Long road ahead
The new reforms are intended to dismantle the Wilayah system to some extent, although it is still unclear when the reforms would be implemented, given their strong disapproval by Saudi Arabia’s powerful conservative lobby which considers the guardianship laws as an integral part of national identity.
Several other rules which are part of the guardianship system remain in force, such as requiring a male guardian’s permission to marry, leave prison, or start a business. Saudi women still cannot bequeath citizenship to their children.
Saudi Arabia in 2018 unleashed a crackdown on female activists who were fighting for reforms, and several cases of prominent women fleeing the country to seek asylum abroad were reported this year.