The renewed prospect that Saudi Arabia could lift its restrictive guardianship laws has been greeted with a mixture of hope and cynicism by women in the conservative kingdom.
Saudi media recently reported that the government is considering what would be the most significant women’s rights reform yet in the kingdom, which has some of the most patriarchal laws in the world. Guardianship rules require women to obtain permission from a male guardian to marry, enroll in a school or university, apply for a passport or travel outside the country..
Muna Abu Sulayman, a popular Saudi TV presenter, tweeted that she woke up with “a huge smile” on her face after the reports emerged.
“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 bring the country back to a more moderate form. of Islam. “Soon is now.”
Over the past two years, Prince Mohammed has kept his promises to liberalize some restrictions on women, lift the ban on women driving and attending sporting events in arenas. But the change has stalled, leaving many Saudi women skeptical.
One of the kingdom’s leading daily newspapers, Okaz, reported this month that the government had set up a committee to study the possibility of removing the guardianship requirement for women over 18. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, responsible for handling communications with Western media, did not confirm the report.
The spokesperson said empowering Saudi women was one of the key initiatives announced by Prince Mohammed. The government “continues to assess the effectiveness of Saudi laws and regulations to ensure that the kingdom continues to move towards greater gender equality,” he added.
Speculation over guardianship laws has been fueled in part 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’s happening now, and we want to move forward and find a way to deal with it that doesn’t hurt families and doesn’t hurt culture.
Guardianship laws that restrict Saudi women are based on the country’s austere interpretation of Islam. At birth, a girl’s father is named her legal guardian and once a woman is married, her husband becomes her legal guardian.
If her husband dies, guardianship is transferred to her son or another male family member, and a woman who goes against her guardian’s wishes can be arrested.
Much of the conversation about possible reform of guardianship laws is taking place on social media. While some women rejoiced at the idea, others said it was a publicity stunt.
Twitter and Instagram have garnered reactions ranging from humorous memes and skepticism to heartfelt messages of relief. A Twitter user tweeted a popular hashtag signaling approval, as well as images of Prince Mohammed smiling and pink hearts with flattering messages, including “fab”.
But some on Twitter, including conservative male commentators, denounced the idea. One wrote that the changes were driven by American influence and would lead to corruption in the kingdom.
Souad Al-Shammary, who has long advocated for more rights for Saudi women and is the co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network group, tweeted her kudos to the government for considering lifting the law.
“I tell you it will fall,” she said of the law, adding, “we will remember it these days, the wheel of time will not turn back.”
The role of women in Saudi public life has long been tightly regulated, but social media has provided space for women to challenge these restrictions.
Some have taken to social media to outright challenge the guardianship law, 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. Ms Al-Shammary has previously been jailed for tweeting her criticism of the country’s strict religious standards.
The latest developments come just over a year after the end of the driving ban, a policy long denounced by Saudi liberals and the international community.
Although the government has made some progress, human rights groups say there is still 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 could resurface now in a bid to counter negative stories about the country and in particular the crown prince.
“I think the context is the very, very bad publicity the so-called runaways 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 country’s outlook on the world,” she added. “These incidents puncture her narrative that Saudi Arabia is a haven for women.”
Ms Al-Rasheed and other Saudi women doubt the potential overhaul will go far enough.
Omaima Al-Najjar, a Saudi blogger and activist living in exile in Italy, said vague reports that the laws could be reviewed do little to reassure her that women’s rights are a priority in the kingdom.
Ms. Al-Najjar pointed to child support, custody laws and divorce laws which all favor men over women and are outside the guardianship system. She said rethinking guardianship laws would only be a first step towards real equality.
“The demand for equal rights continues until all rights are granted,” she said, “not just breadcrumbs every now and then.”