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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has instigated several changes in the ultra-conservative kingdom since ascending to power in June 2017. Some were cosmetic reforms whereas others were made to eliminate his rivals.
He was nonetheless praised, both inside the kingdom and beyond, for lifting the ban on women driving in June 2018. Yet six months later, the same women who campaigned for that right were arrested.
MBS is not the only man abusing his power over women. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system treats women as legal minors, requiring them to obtain male permission to travel, marry, work and now drive. By law, a brother, father or husband is the designated guardian, giving them the power to make a range of critical decisions on the woman’s behalf.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called the guardianship system the most ‘significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country’.
Male guardianship is also responsible for forcing increasing numbers of women to flee the country, according to Adam Google, who monitors Saudi Arabia for HRW.
The guardianship system straddles the law and age-old customs, making it a sensitive issue. Other countries in the Middle East also have some provisions that require women to obtain permission from their father or husband before travelling or getting married. In Iran, for instance, women must obtain their husband’s approval before traveling.
Prior to November 2015, women in Tunisia, which was widely perceived as a more accommodating country for women in the Arab world, needed permission from their husband before travelling with their children. However, no Middle Eastern country rivals Saudi Arabia when it comes to giving power to men over women. Although MBS said in 2018 that he favoured ending the guardianship system, he has not taken any action out of fear of upsetting male-dominated social customs.
“If I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters,” he said in an interview with American magazine The Atlantic.
Nevertheless, women’s rights activists have bravely lobbied the government to abolish the guardianship system for years. The royal family first agreed to do so in 2009 and again in 2013 following its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Yet after both hearings, Saudi Arabia merely made cosmetic changes to the guardianship law. The reforms ended some unofficial guardianship rules, which previously barred women from accessing government services or obtaining employment without permission from a male guardian. However, women still need a man’s approval to obtain a passport, travel abroad or get married.
State-backed religious clerics have defended the guardianship system, arguing that it is rooted in a Koranic verse. But Saudi Islamic feminists and other religious scholars criticize the interpretation, claiming that nowhere in sharia, Islamic law that is partially derived from the Koran, is guardianship codified.
Then again, the real debate has little to do with the interpretation of sharia. Saudi courts have long cited social norms when enforcing restrictions on women thanks to an absence of state laws to aid legal texts derived from sharia. This means that state authorities often justify the guardianship system to preserve ‘cultural’ practices.
Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst and founder of the New York-based Alef Advisory, told Fanack that there are two reasons why the Saudi leadership is reluctant to abolish the guardianship system. He first notes that all social reforms MBS has instituted have a clear economic incentive, which was one of the main reasons that the ban on women driving was lifted.
At the same time, Sabra believes that MBS probably calculated that abolishing the guardianship system will not generate the same economic benefits and instead risks politically empowering women. It could also anger the religious clergy, who are charged with regulating social customs.
“Conservative clerics are still very influential in Saudi Arabia, so the government is probably thinking, why anger them?” Sabra said.
HRW stresses that Saudi Arabia has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which legally obliges the kingdom to end all discrimination against women. However, it is important to note that the Saudi government demanded a general reservation upon ratifying CEDAW. This states that the kingdom is not obliged to incorporate any of the terms of the convention if it contradicts sharia.
In practice, the kingdom refuses to implement any meaningful reforms despite comments by MBS regarding the importance of female participation in Saudi society.
“[The government] will continue to develop [women’s] talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy,” he said while unveiling his ambitious modernization plan called Vision 2030.
Now that it has become clear that he has no incentive to empower Saudi women, the European Union and rights groups are calling on Riyadh to deliver on its rhetoric.
In February 2019, European lawmakers expressed concern over government web services, a likely reference to the Saudi application Absher that allows male guardians to track the movement of their wives, sisters and daughters. The lawmakers also urged Saudi Arabia to end its male guardianship system, but the plea has fallen on deaf ears.
“MBS isn’t a liberal,” Sabra told Fanack. “That was simply never true.”