For Westerners — squinting at Saudi Arabia across a vast landscape of stories about oppressed women and human rights abuses — the desert kingdom often leaves a single, damning impression: Here is a country that women are desperate to flee.
But the changes driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, have complicated that image over the last few years, codifying for women the right to drive, attend sporting events and travel without a man’s permission, among others. As the social codes that long governed their lives relax their grip, more women are wearing their hair uncovered and mingling openly with men — at least in larger cities.
But whether reality lives up to the law depends on the dice roll of birth. Day by day, it still falls to women in many households to negotiate their freedoms with the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who serve as their legal guardians
Even before the legal changes, Saudi women from tolerant families rarely had to chafe under requirements that a male guardian approve plans to get jobs or travel abroad. For them, permission was nearly always granted.
Although Crown Prince Mohammed has spoken of dismantling the guardianship system, women remain legal minors when it comes to marrying, living on their own and other matters. Those from more traditional families are still yoked to male guardians for whom fear of God, change or what the neighbors will think often outweighs the letter of the law.
The lack of reliable public polling and free speech makes it difficult to gauge how Saudis view women’s changing status. But one study, from 2018, suggested that fear of social stigma may drive opposition more than personal resistance. It found that a majority of Saudi husbands approve of their wives working outside the home, yet underestimate how many other men also support it. Telling them that more men actually favored it was enough encouragement for them to register their wives for a job-recruitment service.
The easing up of attitudes has mirrored a general loosening of Saudi society, much of it owing to the legal changes set in motion by the crown prince, who has erased many social restrictions and defanged the once-feared religious police.