Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia were universally treated as legal minors, requiring a male relative’s permission to for a range of critical decisions, such as working, obtaining family records, and applying for a passport. After years of legal discrimination, the deeply rigid guidelines governing the lives of women in Saudi Arabia are beginning to loosen. But there is still a long way to go.
What does “male guardianship” mean in for women in Saudi Arabia?
Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, every woman must have a male guardian who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.
Traditionally, a woman’s male guardian from birth is her father and once she is married her guardian becomes her husband. In other cases, such as when a woman’s father or husband has died, a brother or even her son may serve as her male guardian. All women in Saudi Arabia are subject to this practice.
Until August 2019, women in Saudi Arabia were universally treated as legal minors, requiring a male relative’s permission for a range of critical decisions, such as working, obtaining family records, and applying for a passport. Women who traveled abroad were required to be accompanied by a male relative, including if they were attending school. Women also could not serve as legal guardians of their own children.
How does the male guardianship system impact the lives of women across Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia currently ranks 92 out of 129 countries on the Gender Equality Index comprised by Equal Measures 2030.
The kingdom’s male guardianship system, part of the state’s adherence to a rigid interpretation of the Qu’ran, has repeatedly denied women economic and scholastic opportunities. If a woman sought to go abroad to study and did not have a male relative willing to accompany her, she was forced to forfeit her these opportunities. If a woman wished to work, but did not have the permission of her father, her husband, or her male guardian, she could not legally hold a job. Because women could not obtain family records and were not considered legal guardians of their own children, women faced difficulties in simply registering children for school. It was not until 2018 that women in the kingdom were able to drive a car or to attend movies or concerts alongside men.
Controlling women’s decision making power and bodily autonomy has become deeply rooted in Saudi Arabia’s way of life. The app Absher, hosted by both Google and Apple in their app stores, is an official government app that, among other features, enables male guardians to permit or deny a female relative permission to travel abroad. Prior to the loosening of the kingdom’s guardianship laws in 2019, women had reported breaking into the app on their male guardians’ phones to change their permission status in attempts to flee the kingdom.
There are currently no available statistics from the Saudi Arabian government on the rates of child marriage in the kingdom. However, in January 2019, the country’s Shura Council, an advisory body to the government, approved regulations that prohibited marriage for girls and boys under age 15 and required those under 18 to receive approval from a specialized court. Prior to these regulations, there were no statutes governing the legal age of marriage in Saudi Arabia, but these loopholes, coupled with the fact that women still require the permission of a male relative to marry make them vulnerable to forced and child marriage
How is the male guardianship system enshrined in law in Saudi Arabia?
Male guardianship is not one law or even a codified set of laws. It is an entire system built on the premise that women are ‘legally minors’. Activists have worked to reform specific elements of the system piece by piece, for example, the Fatwa on women driving.
In April 2017, King Salman ordered all government agencies to allow women to access any government service without a male guardian’s consent unless required by existing government regulations. Government agencies were also ordered to provide a list within three months of procedures that require male guardian approval.
The additional reforms which took place in 2018 and 2019 saw women’s rights greatly expanded but there remain unsettling discrepancies between the progress being made and the reality of many women inside the kingdom, particularly those who have championed women’s rights.
What progress has been made for women in Saudi Arabia?
In August 2019, reforms marked a major turning point in Saudi women’s rights, including women being:
- protected from employment discrimination,
- able to register births and deaths,
- able to obtain family records,
- able to make medical decisions about their own body, related to birth and pregnancy,
- able to travel abroad without being accompanied by a guardian.
These came just over a year after women were able to drive in the kingdom for the first time in June 2018.
Despite the progress that has recently been made, there is still much work to be done before women in Saudi Arabia achieve true equality.
Women in Saudi Arabia still require the permission of a male relative to:
- leave prison,
- to marry,
- to divorce
- Or to exit a domestic abuse shelter.
Women also still cannot pass on citizenship to their children, and male guardians are still able to file cases of disobedience against a woman, which includes absence from the home. Moreover, filial disobedience is still recognized as a crime.
Doesn’t this break international law?
Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2001. As a signatory of CEDAW, like other signatories, Saudi Arabia is expected to pursue policies that eliminate the discrimination of women, including “ any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women … of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” This includes Article 9 of CEDAW which states that “Women have equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality and that of their children” and Article 11 which states, in part,
that “Women have the right to work, employment opportunities, equal remuneration, free choice of profession and employment…”
However, when Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW it did so with two broad reservations that enabled the Kingdom to, effectively, implement the treaty as it saw fit. Those reservations are:
- In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.
- The Kingdom does not consider itself bound by paragraph two of article 9 of the Convention and paragraph 1 of article 29 of the Convention.
In addition to international law, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 calls for Gender Equality and enumerates several targets, including:
- End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
- The adoption and strengthening of “sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”
Why is Saudi Arabia detaining women’s human rights defenders?
Dozens of women’s rights activists continue to be detained solely for demanding an end to the discriminatory male guardianship system and the right to drive. These women have been subject to abuse during their time in prison and deprived of contact with their families.
During the spring of 2019, 36 countries, including all signatories to the European Union called upon Saudi Arabia to immediately and unconditionally release women human rights defenders who are being detained for exercising their fundamental rights. States also condemned the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and demanded that those responsible be held accountable.
In September 2019, Australia delivered a joint statement at the UN in Geneva about Saudi Arabia on behalf of a cross-regional group of Member States expressing serious concerns over the persecution and intimidation of activists, including women human rights defenders, involving reports of torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearances, unfair trials, arbitrary detention, and impunity for perpetrators.
What is Equality Now doing to promote women’s rights in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia has played a major role in Equality Now’s advocacy work. Prior to the repeal of the ban against women driving, Equality Now led a continuous campaign to see the fatwa lifted.
Equality Now has also highlighted cases of child marriage, such as that of Fatima, who, in 2010, was sold into marriage to a man in his fifties by her father when she was 12. Fatima’s case highlighted the strong potential for a girl or a woman’s male guardianship to exploit his power over his female relatives for his own gain. Although Fatima’s family were strongly opposed to her marriage they could not intervene because her father was Fatima’s legal guardian. Equality Now became involved in Fatima’s case after the husband refused to grant her a divorce and Fatima’s uncle decided to intervene to help her secure a divorce. Shortly after Fatima’s divorce was finalized, the kingdom adopted legislation stating the minimum age of marriage as 15.
As part of the Free Saudi Women Coalition, Equality Now continues to call for the release of the women’s human rights defenders who are still imprisoned or on temporary release. These women face charges for their peaceful activism and some have been labeled as “terrorists,” even as many of the reforms they called for have come to pass. While the Saudi Public Prosecution has claimed that all of the women have had their legal rights upheld, activists such as Loujain Al-Hathloul and her colleagues were not informed of their arrest warrant. Some were detained with no access to their families or lawyers during the first three months of their detention. They were also not allowed the right to access an attorney to represent them during the investigation, which ended in the Spring of 2019. There have also been concerns that the detained women have been subjected to sexual assaults during their imprisonment.