Fri, Jun 22, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Men still driving Saudi gender policy

AFP, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

The public relations blitz that has seen Saudi Arabia garner headlines this year culminates on Sunday, when women take the wheel for the first time, but a draconian guardianship system remains.

The notorious system that places the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of the men in their lives — the only people qualified to make decisions on their behalf — continues to thrive in a kingdom carefully crafting a new image.

One year ago this month, Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed heir to the most powerful throne in the Middle East, setting in motion a record number of policy changes in a very, very short time, but the reforms only chip at the surface of a system, and society, that many say has far to go.

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, in place for decades, stipulates that women need the permission of their closest male relative — father, husband, brother or son — to enroll in classes, renew their passports and leave either the nation or jail.

Women might also be asked to provide the approval of their guardians to access healthcare.

Since the appointment of Prince Mohammed as crown prince last year, his father, Saudi Arabian King Salman, has signed off on decrees allowing women to watch sports live in stadiums, join the police force, apply online for their own business licenses and, of course, drive.

For many Saudi Arabian women, the right to drive a car with comprehensive insurance — for those who can afford it — is a dangerous distraction.

“How can you call this empowerment? This is hypocrisy. I can drive in my own country, but I cannot leave my own country unless my own son permits it?” one Saudi Arabian woman said by telephone on condition of anonymity. “We are rich, we are educated and yet we are not citizens under the same law. We are at the mercy of the father we are born to or the husband we are married off to.”

Rights groups say the decrees are at best partial. At worst, they nullify some of the larger issues still hanging.

“Allowing women to drive is a welcome step and it is a step towards freedom of movement for women, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Amnesty International Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid said. “If Saudi Arabia is serious about women’s rights, they need to immediately abolish the guardianship system.”

Another Saudi Arabian woman, who also requested she not be identified, says she is stuck in an unhappy marriage — a marriage she described as emotionally abusive.

She says she cannot divorce. Her husband has her passport and her parents live abroad.

“He says it every day: ‘With one call, you’ll never be able to leave Saudi Arabia and see your parents,’” she said.

Change has been slow in Saudi Arabia.

In 2000, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was ratified by Saudi Arabia, which became legally bound to end discrimination against women, including guardianship.

Seventeen years later, King Salman ordered government agencies to provide an official list of services that required women to secure guardian approval, a move rights groups said could mark a small step toward at least reviewing a system now deeply engrained in society.

While it is difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on guardianship in Saudi Arabia, given what Hadid calls a pervasive “culture of fear and silencing of dissent,” online protest movements, and real life arrests, might give some indication.

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