Saudi Arabia, a country in western Asia, has one of the youngest populations in the world. Fifty percent of its 33.4 million people are under 25 years old. Not only this, the country boasts of its flourishing economy with nominal GDP of around US$ 782 Billion and per capita GDP of US$ 23,570

Unsurprisingly, it happens to be the wealthiest nation in the Middle East. The culturally-rich country where Islam – second largest religion across the globe – originated in the 7th century, today remains infamously famous for its human rights violation. 

Although on the right path of bringing about reforms in the country, Saudi Arabia continues to face global scrutiny and criticism over its unjustified trials, authoritative regime and orthodox societal norms. 

The recent reform to abolish flogging – a form of punishment that has drawn ire and condemnation from human rights groups – has again brought into spotlight the repressive social and legal practices that have been followed in the country for a long time. It is quite early to celebrate these ‘novel’ and ‘landmark’ reforms which may be nothing more than an eyewash. 

These human rights violations take place on various fronts such as Freedom of Expression, Association, and Belief, Criminal Justice, Migrant Workers’ Rights, Discrimination against Shi’a Muslims, Yemen Airstrikes, and Blockage, etc. However, keeping in line with LearnBlue’s theme of the Month – Gender Equality (Sustainable Development Goal 5) – I’ll be focusing on Women’s and Girls’ Rights in Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia King
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh in 2017, Reuters file

A look at recent Reforms 

In August 2019, as what could be seen as a landmark step in bringing about an end to the country’s discriminatory male guardianship system, authorities in Saudi Arabia announced some major reforms

As rightly explained by Amnesty international, these reforms allowed women aged over 21 to apply for and obtain a passport and travel without the permission of a male guardian; women aged over 18 to register the birth of a newborn child, the death of a relative and their own marriage or divorce, as well as to apply for and obtain a family record; and women to act as the head of a household. 

Among these, it entitles women to be paid at par with men and prohibits employers from dismissing or threatening women with dismissal during pregnancy or maternity leave or if they have an illness resulting from pregnancy or childbirth. Changes in the Labour Law clearly mentions that a “worker” can be female as well as male. 

Back in 2017 and 2018, a slew of other noteworthy reforms granted women the legal right to drive, own businesses, enter cinema halls and sports complexes, access government and health services without requiring consent from their male guardians, and the right to vote in municipal elections. 

The problem with the Saudi reforms 

As mentioned earlier, Saudi Arabia draws flak from many human rights commissions and activists for the repressive and discriminatory laws that the country continues to follow in the modern, cosmopolitan and fast-moving societies of the 21st century. 

Recent reforms – which can be hailed as watershed moments in the history of Saudi Kingdom – are pushed by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an effort to modernise the economy and society and prepare for the future, since his promotion in June 2017. 

No one can forget the historic moment when, for the first time, female football fans of Saudi Arabia roared and cheered for their teams at King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah for Al-Ahli’s match against Al-Batin in the Saudi Pro League.

This event proves that we are heading for a prosperous future. I am very proud to be a witness of this massive change.”

Lamya Khaled Nasser, a 32-year-old from Jeddah, told Agence France-Presse

At a time when Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to put a ban on women’s driving, the decision to grant them the right to drive and get behind the wheel in July 2018 sent the women into euphoria, frenzy and disbelief.

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Modia Batterjee (R), 45, receives the keys to a Lexus car she is interested in buying from saleswoman Haifa Alsehli at a Lexus dealership the day after women are once again allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.   
Source: Business Insider
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Saudi women watch a soccer match in 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Unfortunately, the problem with these “revolutionary” advances is that most of the time, if not always, the reforms are nothing more than a mere lip service. Their limited implementation coupled with the lack of commitment ensures that not much has changed for the Saudi women and the society is far from being liberal at the moment. 

When the driving ban was lifted in June 2018, thirteen women’s rights activists remained on trial for committing the crime of driving their own cars and were arrested in May 2018. According to Amnesty International, the women were held incommunicado for a month and subjected to electric shocks, as well as psychological and physical torture. 
What’s more, Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, who was arrested in May 2018, still remains imprisoned and is often beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder.

The very existence of this sham trial pulls the veil off of the authorities’ so-called push for reforms in the Kingdom. How can they initiate change in the country when the very women who fought for these reforms are still being punished for it?

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said in a statement.
women Protest
Benoit Tessier/Reuters 
Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage a protest to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris on March 8, 2019.

This is all legal and we are still not considering the social, familial and psychological pressure that women and girls must face before taking up the driver’s seat in a country where sitting behind the wheel of a car could cause birth defects for a pregnant woman’s child.

Male Guardianship System: Rule of the Males

“We are entrusted with raising the next generation but you can’t trust us with ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Rania, a 34-year-old Saudi woman

The above-mentioned statement by Rania pretty much sums up the meaning of Male Guardianship System. As noted by Human Rights Watch in an article published in July 2016,”The male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country, effectively rendering adult women legal minors who cannot make key decisions for themselves.”

As the name suggests, male guardianship system mandates every Saudi woman to have a male guardian, her wali al-amr, normally a father or husband, who is entitled to make crucial decisions on her behalf (in some cases, a brother or a son can also become a guardian). 

These decisions may vary from marriage, divorce, inheritance, work and even access to basic facilities which women in other parts of the world have been entitled to since birth, not to mention they had their own share of struggles, opposition and challenges in the process. 

Past reforms remain largely inadequate and inefficient in a patriarchal and orthodox society which tries to suppress women at every step they take through its oppressive customs, in the name of tradition. 

As of today, the system has not yet abolished the system of male guardianship completely. Consequently, a woman still cannot take decisions for her own children and needs a male guardian’s permission to leave shelters wherein they face domestic abuse. 
Men, on other hand, can still file cases against daughters, wives, or female relatives under their guardianship for “disobedience,” often leading to forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment.

Conclusion

“You don’t have power over your body… It makes you nervous every step of your life. Everything that you put so much effort and time into could just end in a second if your guardian decides.”

Reema, 36, told Human Rights Watch

Although no argument can ever justify the existence of systematic gender-based  discrimination in any part of the world, however, the historic pact between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious establishment gives us some glimpses of how the rich nation of Saudi Arabia became so conservative in its approach.

In spite of a series of changes to alleviate the status of women in Saudi Arabia, it is important that the government takes immediate steps to put an end to male guardianship system and sex segregation in personal and public life. 

“My son is my guardian, believe it or not, and this is really humiliating… My own son, the one I delivered, the one I raised, he is my guardian.” 

Sura, 62, retired university lecturer, told Human Rights Watch

Because of his vision to expand the economy and liberalise society, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, aka MBS, is seen as a great reformer by some people. For him, the time is now to ACT. 

It is the time when women in Saudi Arabia relish their overdue freedom and enjoy the most basic rights. Why should a woman suffer from countless miseries and endless problems and live a life which is no worse than slavery itself, just because she was born in a specific part of the globe? 

In general, every person in authority must ensure that they are contributing to the creation of an equitable world order where the human rights of each and every citizen are highly cherished, celebrated and protected, even in the worst of times.