Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the kingdom, according to a new report.
Under the system, women are barred from travelling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or exiting prison without the consent of a male relative.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) study comes as the kingdom works to implement its “Vision 2030” and “National Transformation Plan” to wean it off its dependence on oil, including government targets to boost women’s participation in the workforce.
The report was published just seven months after Saudi women were allowed the right to run and vote for the first time in the country’s only local elections, for municipal council seats.
It found that even with these greater opportunities, a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia rests largely on “the good will” of her male guardian – often a father, husband, brother, or in some cases her son.
A 25-year-old referred to as Zahra in the report said her father used to beat her so severely that at one point she temporarily lost her vision and had to be taken to a hospital.
Although her parents divorced and she lived with her mother, her father remained her legal guardian. He refused to allow her to study abroad on scholarship and she cannot travel abroad for work without his permission.
HRW, which interviewed 61 Saudis inside and outside the kingdom over the past nine months, said it used pseudonyms for its interviewees for security reasons.
“Guardianship really creates a system that is ripe for abuse,” said the report’s author Kristine Beckerle, a fellow in HRW’s Mideast division.
Saudi Arabia’s legal system and social norms are underpinned by an ultraconservative Islamic ideology widely known as Wahhabism.
Powerful Wahhabi clerics in the kingdom support the imposition of male guardianship based on a verse in the Koran that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women.
Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Koranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes. Other Muslim-majority countries, even those with Sharia courts, do not have similarly restrictive male guardianship laws.
HRW says the Saudi system effectively renders adult women as legal minors. The report also cites the kingdom’s ban on women driving and an almost complete segregation of the sexes as further impediments.
Women in Saudi Arabia cannot make decisions for themselves “because they need to worry if their dad or father is going to agree”. This could include signing a lease, getting a job, travelling, studying or getting married, Ms Beckerle said.
Some guardianship restrictions have been loosened over the past decade, with women granted the right to work without male permission.
Under the kingdom’s ambitious economic reform plans, women are encouraged to enter the workforce and companies are given incentives to boost female employment.
However, penalties are not imposed on employers who refuse to hire women without the permission of male relatives. Some universities also require guardianship permission to enroll.
Other reforms have included granting Saudi women the right to obtain national identity cards without male permission.
However, in order to be granted an ID card, women must present a family card, which is issued to men.
Recently, the government issued a directive allowing divorced and widowed women to obtain family cards, which grants them the ability to enrol their children in school, for example.
A law was passed in 2013 that criminalises domestic abuse, and women can seek protection in shelters without the approval of a male guardian.
However, women still cannot travel abroad with their children without the permission of the father, who remains the children’s legal guardian, and women cannot provide consent for their daughters to marry, or pass their nationality to their children, the report said.
Informally, both public and private hospitals sometimes require a male guardian to agree before performing procedures, such as a C-section.
Although not strictly enforced, women who are granted scholarships to study abroad must be accompanied by a male guardian. Female inmates must be released to a male guardian, leaving many lingering either in jail or shelters.
Ms Beckerle said: “There have been reforms on the margins that have no doubt had an impact on women’s lives… but by and large they can’t really get around without a male helping them.”