From restrictions to reforms: Saudi treatment of women

Friday August 2 2019

 

Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has decided to allow adult women to travel without seeking approval from a so-called male "guardian", a flagship reform as the petro-state seeks to overhaul its ultra-conservative image

But a number of policies remain in place which leave male relatives in charge of major decisions affecting women's lives.

Here is where the Sunni Muslim kingdom stands on five key issues:

Education

Saudi Arabia's so-called guardianship system places the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of their fathers, brothers, husbands and even sons.

Women require the formal permission of their closest male relative to enrol in classes at home or to leave the country for classes abroad. It was unclear whether Thursday's reform would change that.

In July 2017, Saudi Arabia's education ministry announced girls' schools would begin to offer physical education classes for the first time, provided they conform with Islamic law.

The ministry did not specify whether girls would need permission from their guardians to take part.

Saudi Arabia has several women-only universities.

Employment

Restrictions the guardianship system has long imposed on women's employment have been loosened as Saudi Arabia tries to wean itself from its dependence on oil.

The reforms announced Thursday also cover employment regulations that are expected to further expand job opportunities for women.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, named heir to the throne in June 2017, has promoted an economic plan known as "Vision 2030", which aims to boost the female quota in the workplace from 22 to 30 percent by 2030.

King Salman, his father, has signed decrees allowing women to apply online for their own business licences. The Saudi police force now also employs female officers.

Driving

On June 24 last year, women were allowed to drive cars for the first time in the kingdom's history.

While the end of the driving ban was largely welcomed, it did not signal an opening up of political freedoms.

Several women's rights activists, including veteran campaigners for the right to drive, were detained just weeks earlier and later put on trial on a host of charges including speaking to foreign journalists.

Personal status

Under the guardianship system, women of all ages require the consent of their male guardian to get married.

A man may divorce his wife without her consent.

In January, the Saudi justice ministry said courts were required to notify women by text message that their marriages had been terminated, a measure apparently aimed at ending cases of men getting a divorce without informing their partners.

Public spaces 

In January 2018, women were allowed into a special section in select sports stadiums for the first time. They had previously been banned from attending sporting events.

Saudi Arabia has also reined in its infamous morality police, which for decades had patrolled the streets on the lookout for women with uncovered hair or bright nail polish.

Some women in the capital, Riyadh, and other cities now appear in public without headscarves.