In Saudi Arabia, every woman is required to have a male guardian, which can be a husband, father, brother, even a son! Women must be accompanied by a man when partaking in everyday tasks, and men have legal power to make critical life decisions on the behalf of the women in their family.
Many campaigns have been initiated in hopes of abolishing the male guardian system, but they have made little impact. Even a petition that gained over 14,000 signatures for the cause proved to be of little worth to the country. The people can protest and fight, but change needs to happen from the inside of the kingdom before it can be reflected on the outside.
On April 17th, King Salman issued an order that forbids government agencies from denying women access to government services if they are without their male guardian. Such services have to do with education and healthcare, among others.
The directive also calls for programs that will introduce international women’s rights conventions into the country, as well as the development of a plan that will raise awareness on women’s rights.
However, a government agency can deny it’s services to women if there are existing regulatory codes that require them to do so. Some of these codes have to do with getting a passport, studying abroad, and getting married. The king’s order does not address many laws that clearly and directly enforce guardianship requirements. Women are still banned from driving, and are still required to ask permission before obtaining a job or undergoing any type of medical treatment.
“Saudi Arabia has a tremendous opportunity to root out all vestiges of the guardianship system, and should use the 3-month renew period King Salman ordered to immediately declare all guardian consent requirements null and void,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
You may be left wondering why King Salman is suddenly trying to foster change in the country, and one reason could be Saudi Arabia’s recent economic struggles. According to Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, allowing women certain luxuries like driving would pump billions of dollars into the economy while boosting female participation in the workplace, expected to jump 8 percent by 2030.
Women are finally being seen as valuable to the Saudi Arabian economy, but the actions of the kingdom will determine if they are taking the role of women seriously.
The abolishment of the male guardianship system will be the most significant stepping stone in realizing women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Not only will women be more respected by their community, but they will gain respect and value for themselves.
It is time for women to live outside of the lines that men draw for them. The efforts being made by King Salman are honorable, but his calls for reform may not immediately become a reality in the country. The next step is to turn attention to the concrete laws in place that enforce male guardianship.
Sign Up For Our Newsletter