Saudi women are subject to so-called guardianship laws, legal codes based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law, coupled with a strictly traditional gender view. In many aspects of life, a woman remains a legal dependent, regardless of her age, education level or marital status. She needs a male guardian – a father, uncle, husband, brother or son – to provide for a variety of basic needs.
“It’s a long fight and a long road to serious equality,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics.
In 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, including the Guardianship System. Last year King Salman signed a series of royal decrees that relaxed some of those restrictions. But in a range of activities and life choices, Saudi women cannot decide for themselves.
The Ministry of Education usually requires that a tutor, called a wali, approve the school enrollment. If she wants to study at a university outside of her hometown, a tutor must approve her travel and accommodation. If she gets a scholarship to study abroad, a tutor must approve her passport application and give her consent for her to leave the country. Traditional customs mean that young women studying abroad usually need a male parent to accompany them, acting as a chaperone.
Work and money
Businesses and administrations usually require a woman to bring her guardian to consent to paid employment outside the home, although the law does not formally require this. In addition, according to custom, banks require the approval of a guardian for a woman to open a savings account, let alone obtain a loan or a credit card. Women were only granted the right to open a business in their own name and the right to sign a rental agreement for housing in their own name last year, although many landlords refuse to consider a single woman. as a tenant.
Permission to marry must be granted by a guardian. Without the guardian’s consent, a Saudi court will not recognize a marriage. Women who wish to marry non-Saudis must seek approval from the Home Office, another process that requires the consent of a guardian. Permission to marry a non-Muslim is almost impossible in Saudi Arabia. In the guardianship system, once a woman is married, her husband becomes her guardian. If her husband dies, guardianship is transferred to her son – or to his father, or to an uncle if his father is deceased.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not guaranteed a fair course. Their witness statements weigh half the weight of a man. Women are entitled to half of the inheritance of male family members. A recent royal decree reversed decades of precedent that divorced women would automatically lose custody of children to their husbands.
A woman who ignores her guardian can be arrested for “disobedience”. If a woman is detained for any reason, the police will not release her unless her guardian comes to pick her up, even though she is not facing criminal charges. Women practice law in Saudi Arabia, but there are no female judges.
Passports and state identity documents must be obtained with the consent of the woman’s guardian. But Saudi women don’t need their guardian’s approval to get a driver’s license.
Women are expected to wear general and modest attire when in public. Saudi Arabia employs an entire police division tasked with maintaining public morals and can detain women and men whose clothes and actions do not conform to strict interpretations of dress. Recent reforms mean that some public spaces are now open to a limited social mix of genders, such as cinemas or sporting events, but even in these areas of public life, women must be accompanied by a male chaperone. The religious police no longer have the power to make arrests, but they remain in place.