Saudi Arabia entered a new chapter in the social reforms that have been making strides over the past few years, when Saudi women were able to read in the country’s official gazette Um Al-Qura this week that further royal decrees had been issued checking more boxes on their list of demands.
The gazette reported that Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz had relaxed the guardianship system in force in the country by granting women the right to apply for passports and their renewal without obtaining the approval of a male guardian.
Saudi women over the age of 21 now have the right to travel without a male guardian’s consent as a result. By amending articles 33 and 50 of the country’s civil law, the decrees also allow Saudi women to register a child’s birth, a death, marriage and divorce.
Earlier royal decrees had granted women the right to drive, practise sports in government schools, attend sports activities in stadiums and hold public parties.
Former king Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz opened the door for Saudi women to become members of the country’s Consultative (Shura) Council, a national body, with representation of not less than 20 per cent of the seats in December 2014. Today, female members of the council occupy 30 seats out of a total of 150, and in 2015 women took part in municipal elections.
Women also now occupy important official positions in Saudi Arabia, with Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud being appointed as the first female Saudi ambassador to the US. She is the daughter of former Riyadh ambassador to Washington, prince Bandar bin Sultan.
“These new regulations are history in the making. They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society. It is a holistic approach to gender equality that will unquestionably create real change for Saudi women,” the princess tweeted.
The recent amendments to civil and labour laws were widely celebrated on Twitter, the most-used social-media platform in Saudi Arabia. One well-known Saudi university professor tweeted a picture of a Saudi woman wearing the traditional black cloak, the abaya, and hugging a poster of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman with a caption reading “a picture’s worth a thousand words… He made the impossible possible.”
Media reports say that the 36-year-old crown-prince was the catalyst for the social transformations that have swept through one of the world’s most conservative countries. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 Agenda launched by Bin Salman in 2016 to help alleviate its dependence on oil revenues and jumpstart the economy says Riyadh is aiming to increase women’s participation in the work force from 22 per cent to 30 per cent.
With the recent royal decrees, discrimination based on gender, physical ability, or age in the work environment has been outlawed.
One former opposition activist using just his first name of Al-Hamad has been calling for social and political reform in the country for decades. “Now, it is safe to say that the new Saudi Arabia has been freed from the control of the merchants of religion and those that live off manipulating the interpretation of religion,” he commented of the recent reforms.
“Saudi Arabia is back to the original disposition of Islam; the simple Islam that the Arab man of the Arabian desert understood without the help of a mediator or someone who makes claims about what is religiously allowed or forbidden without logic or proof.”
Many Saudi women celebrated their hard-earned freedoms that have become “legal and regulated,” in the wording of the decrees, on Twitter. TV host Mona Abu Suleiman tweeted that the new decisions would create “a generation [of girls] living on an equal footing with their brothers.”
No Saudi woman has complained about procedures for issuing driving licences. However, one woman who had received a scholarship funded by the Saudi government complained that the mission administration was still “violating the royal decree and insisting my uncle travel with me as a guardian”.
Director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, an NGO, Ali Adubisi, speaking from Berlin, called for a waiting period to be observed in order to see whether the decrees were being applied. He told the BBC that some decisions had been presented in a “rosy” way in the media but were not always being implemented on the ground.
In a surprising move, liberal activists in Saudi Arabia also united with conservative currents in doubting the intentions of the ruling family that had driven it to make such reforms.
The groups, at loggerheads for decades, believe that “Western pressures” against Saudi Arabia had pushed Riyadh to adopt the measures.
The conservatives oppose the reforms because they threaten “the Muslim Saudi community”, as many of them expressed on Twitter, while the liberal group wants to take the credit for the reform measures as a result of their efforts.
A number of liberal groups also referred to Saudi women activists incarcerated for demanding the abolition of the guardianship system. The detained women have yet to stand trial.
Women in Saudi Arabia still do not have the right to marry without a male guardian’s approval or approve the marriages of their children. They cannot pass on Saudi nationality to children born of foreign husbands. These prohibitions will probably not be lifted, observers say, since many Islamic countries that have conducted social reforms regarding women’s rights before Saudi Arabia have opted to retain them.
Laws aside, the main obstacle to greater gender equality in Saudi Arabia may come from Saudi society. In the experience of many Arab, Islamic and Third World countries, social obstacles and the lack of women’s awareness have hindered the practical improvement of their status, sometimes for decades.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Liberating Saudi women