The legal status of women in Saudi Arabia has long been entangled in a web of custom, laws, and regulations, influenced by the religious discourse, that have subjected women to male authority. However, the kingdom has made important changes over the past two years that have improved the situation and status of women. In April 2017, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree stating that government bodies should not demand that a woman obtain a guardian’s permission for services if there was no legal requirement. This was a small but important step as it acknowledged for the first time the restrictions imposed by the guardianship system. In September 2017, a royal decree announced the lifting of the driving ban on women and in early August 2019 the government announced new regulations removing major restrictions imposed by the guardianship system. For decades, the guardianship system excluded women from full citizenship, requiring a male guardian’s permission in matters regarding education, employment, travel, health care, and legal rights.
Allowing women to drive improved their situation, but also enhanced the kingdom’s image abroad since the ban had long set Saudi Arabia apart from other countries. However, lifting the ban on driving was relatively easy for the state as it did not interfere with established norms inside the family structure as the guardianship system has done.
The guardianship system has penetrated different laws and regulations imposing restrictions on women’s freedom of choice and autonomy. It has allowed government bodies to interfere in the private sphere, which some guardians have used to restrict, or even punish, their female relatives. As a result, the state had been reluctant to dismantle parts of the system as not to provoke further unrest in the family unit. On the other hand, women fleeing the country tarnished the kingdom’s modernization efforts as their cases highlighted in international news outlets the plight of women under the guardianship system.
The new regulations announced in early August affect several laws that have restricted women’s access to civil documents, the labor market, and, most importantly, travel. The new amendments pertaining to travel laws are perhaps the most significant as they allow women to be on an equal footing with men regarding traveling abroad. Under the new amendments, women will be able to apply for passports and travel abroad without a guardian’s permission.
A number of amendments have been made to the Civil Status Law, which previously only granted men access to family documents. Men are usually in possession of these documents and are permitted to register or apply for additional changes relating to their civil status. This has been specifically problematic for separated or divorced women who needed to ask their ex-husbands for documents in order to care for their children or have control over their lives. The amendments to Articles 33, 47, and 53 now allow women to register births, divorces, and deaths, respectively. Article 50 allows mothers to obtain family cards to confirm their relation to their children. This allows women to be responsible for their children during domestic travel, hospital procedures, and school enrollment. Although the family card regulation was instituted a few years ago, it was perhaps reannounced now to highlight all the changes involving the situation of women in the country. The amendments to Article 91 removed phrasing that recognized male superiority in the family unit. Now, it acknowledges that both parents are responsible for implementing civil status regulations.
The amendments to Article 30, which previously stated that women and minors must live with their guardians, are quite significant. The article now only states that minors are to live with their guardians. This might signal an end to taghayyub (absence) cases, which helped guardians bring back female relatives who decided to leave home without their family’s permission. Taghayyub effectively obstructs women who are subject to abuse from finding solutions outside their homes. It also prevents women from living independently against their guardians’ will. By filing taghayyub, a guardian can report his female relative to the police, who would then transfer her to Dar Al-Reaya (care homes) if her guardian refuses to receive her. Unlike Dar Al-Himaya (protection homes), which receive victims of abuse, Dar Al-Reaya are for convicted women under the age of 30. The situation of women in Dar Al-Reaya has been widely reported domestically due to the dire conditions of these homes. Women in both Dar Al-Himaya and Dar Al-Reaya require a male guardian’s permission to leave them. Some women can stay in these homes for a prolonged period if their guardians fail to receive them, perhaps as a way to punish them or contain them in these homes to prevent further family disputes.
The regulations introduced to travel and civil status laws will limit the state’s ability to intervene in the private sphere. The case of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun earlier this year demonstrated how embassies can also play a role in this complex arrangement due to the wide authority granted to male guardians. In the case of Alqunun, the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok contacted the immigration police to find her, citing concern for her safety as a reason for their search. Some women attempt to go abroad instead of finding solutions inside the country since existing laws have subjected them to a patriarchal network imposed by their guardians and the state. If Article 30 allows women to live independently, it could not only end absence cases but also eliminate the need for a guardian’s permission for women to leave guest homes or be released from prison.
Despite these amendments, there are other regulations remaining that would require women to obtain their guardian’s approval. Women will still not be able to marry without a guardian’s permission; this is perhaps mostly associated with religious legislation that is followed in many other Muslim countries. Women who want to join the scholarship program abroad will still need a guardian’s permission to enroll in the program. It is unclear if further regulations will address this requirement since women will be able to apply for passports without a guardian’s approval if they are above the age of 21. A guardian’s approval might still be required for those under 21 but the Saudi cultural attache in Washington indicated that the guardianship requirement for study abroad may be removed. However, this will be clarified when executive regulations are released later in August.
The new amendments should be seen in the wider context of changes implemented by the state to introduce new laws relating to the situation of women. These regulations should help put an end to customary laws and vague statements that have always restricted women and allowed the job market to discriminate against them. Just before the driving ban was lifted, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved an anti-harassment law that was long opposed by conservatives who worried that it would allow mixing between genders. Earlier this year, the Saudi Cabinet approved a public decency law as an attempt to absorb conservative frustration over the sudden social openness. The law established a code of conduct and criminalized certain acts of vandalism such as graffiti as well as anti-social behavior. However, it has not been implemented yet, perhaps due to growing criticism, as it would further impose restrictions on citizens and may serve as a substitute for moral policing similar to what was previously enforced by religious figures.
Nevertheless, the new changes will particularly affect the conservative faction of society that relied on the guardianship system to impose law and order inside the family unit. Now, family dynamics will change as the new regulations will likely trigger short-term feuds. Moreover, unequal implementation is likely to happen if conservative decision makers in various government bodies find gaps in the executive regulations that might slow full penetration of these rights. However, these changes will ultimately lead to greater long-term normalization of women’s role in both the private and public spheres. All of these laws show the Saudi leadership’s efforts to strike a balance between opening up the country and preserving some traditional values by differentiating between customs, Islamic laws, and gender rights.
The state could have tackled the guardianship system by slowly dismantling it. For example, in late 2018 Shura Council member Eqbal Darandari recommended that the Ministry of Justice cease accepting taghayyub cases as a way to gradually dismantle the guardianship system. This would have allowed women to live independently and not leave the country in cases of family disputes or abuse. However, it seems the leadership wants a more immediate and comprehensive solution to address the restrictions imposed by the guardianship system. The executive regulations expected to be announced at the end of August will shed more light on these articles and the implementation of the amendments. Nevertheless, the steps taken so far are crucial milestones for the advancement of women’s rights in the country.