Above: Saudi Arabia promised sweeping reforms to women. Dateline is on the ground asking, whether they go far enough. Full story On Demand.
Saudi news media reported recently that the government is considering what would be the most significant reform yet of women’s rights in the kingdom, which has some of the world’s most patriarchal laws. The guardianship rules require women to get the permission of a male guardian to marry, enrol in a school or a university, apply for a passport or travel out of the country.
Muna Abu Sulayman, a popular Saudi television presenter, tweeted that she woke up with “a huge grin” on her face after the reports came out.
“Long journey, 2 years ago we were told soon,” she wrote, referring to a series of reforms launched in 2017 by Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has vowed to return the country to a more moderate form of Islam. “Soon is now.”
Over the last two years, Prince Mohammed has delivered on promises to liberalise some restrictions on women, lifting a ban on women driving and on attending sporting events in arenas. But change has been halting, leaving many Saudi women sceptical.
One of the kingdom’s top daily newspapers, Okaz, reported this month that the government had established a committee to study the prospect of removing the guardianship requirement for women over age 18. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, which is charged with handling communications with Western news outlets, has not confirmed the news report.
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The spokesman said that empowering Saudi women was one of the key initiatives announced by Prince Mohammed. The government “continues to evaluate the efficacy of Saudi Arabia’s laws and regulations to ensure that the kingdom continues to make strides toward greater gender equality,” he added.
Speculation about the guardianship laws has been partly fuelled by Prince Mohammed. In April 2018, he told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that he would like to reform the law.
“It doesn’t go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said. “In the 1960s, women didn’t travel with male guardians. But it happens now, and we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”
The guardianship laws that restrict Saudi women are based on the country’s austere interpretation of Islam. At birth, a girl’s father is designated her legal guardian and once a woman is married, her husband becomes her legal guardian.
If her husband dies, guardianship transfers to her son or another male family member, and a woman who goes against her guardian’s wishes can be arrested.
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Much of the conversation about possible reform of guardianship laws takes place on social media. While some women rejoiced at the idea, others dismissed it as a publicity stunt.
Twitter and Instagram lit up with reactions ranging from humorous memes and scepticism to heartfelt messages of relief. One Twitter user tweeted a popular hashtag signalling approval, along with images of Prince Mohammed smiling and pink hearts with fawning messages, including “fab.”
Another poked fun at the country’s conservatives with a video of two men repeating “God forbid” over and over. Another shared a video of a woman in a black abaya and head scarf skipping through the street.
But some on Twitter, including conservative male commenters, denounced the idea. One wrote that changes were driven by American influence and would lead to the corruption of the kingdom.
Souad Al-Shammary, who has long advocated for greater rights for Saudi women and is a founder of the Saudi Liberal Network group, tweeted her praise of the government for considering lifting the law.
“I tell you that it will fall,” she said of the law, adding, “we will remember these days, the wheel of time will not go backward.”
Women’s role in Saudi public life has long been strictly regulated, but social media has offered a space for women to challenge those restrictions.
Some have used social media to challenge the guardianship law outright, sharing stories of fleeing the country without their guardian’s consent. But for those living in the country, even speaking out on social media can be risky. Al-Shammary has been jailed before for tweeting her criticism of the country’s strict religious norms.
The latest developments come a little more than a year after the end of the driving ban, a policy long denounced by Saudi liberals and the international community.
While the government has made some strides, human rights groups say there is a long way to go. Several prominent women’s rights activists were arrested weeks before the driving ban was lifted.
Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said the prospect of reforming guardianship laws may be resurfacing now in an attempt to counter negative stories about the country and specifically about the crown prince.
“I think the context of this is the very, very bad publicity that the so-called runaway girls have brought to the kingdom,” she said, speaking of the growing number of Saudi women who rights groups say are fleeing the country.
“Mohammed bin Salman is desperate to improve the world’s view of the country,” she added. “These incidents puncture his narrative about Saudi Arabia being a safe haven for women.”
Al-Rasheed and other Saudi women are sceptical that the potential overhaul would go far enough.
Omaima Al-Najjar, a Saudi blogger and activist living in exile in Italy, said the vague reports that the laws might be studied did little to assure her that women’s rights are a priority in the kingdom.
Al-Najjar pointed to child support, custody laws and divorce laws that all favour men over women and are outside of the guardianship system. She said rethinking guardianship laws would only be a first step toward true equality.
“The demand for equal rights is ongoing until all rights are given,” she said, “not just breadcrumbs every now and then.”
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