The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi women need permission from male guardians for life choices. Will new reforms help end this?

Saudi women shop at a mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2015. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

CAIRO — It seems promising.

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued an order forbidding government agencies from requiring a male guardian’s consent for women seeking some services, such as for education and health care. In a nation where women are not allowed to drive, where women need the consent of male relatives for many of the most important life choices, the new order seemed revolutionary.

The king has given three months for all government agencies to provide a list of procedures that require the consent of a male guardian, underscoring the urgency to change the system.

But there seems to be a caveat: The monarch’s order also says that a government agency could demand a male guardian consent if “there is a regulatory obligation for this request.” So if a Saudi woman wanted to obtain a passport or a marriage license, she would still need permission from a male relative because of existing regulatory codes requiring women to do so if they want to travel abroad or wed.

This week, Human Rights Watch issued a statement raising these concerns. The watchdog group also noted that the king’s order does not address areas where women are required to ask for a guardian's permission before they can start a job or undergo medical treatment. That, activists say, often leads to discriminatory practices, especially in the workplace.

“Saudi Arabia has a tremendous opportunity to root out all vestiges of the guardianship system, and should use the three-month review period King Salman ordered to immediately declare all guardian consent requirements null and void,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The king should also require state agencies to actively prevent discrimination by private individuals and businesses.”

Today, every Saudi woman is required to have a male guardian, such as a husband, father, brother or even a son. They have the legal authority to make vital life decisions on her behalf, such as studying abroad on a government scholarship, getting married, even leaving jail. Women need their guardian’s permission to rent an apartment or make legal claims.

Concerns over women’s rights in the kingdom have gained increased attention in recent months. In March, thousands took to social media to denounce the creation of a provincial girls’ council designed to offer women more opportunities, but it was filled only with males.

Last month, more outrage flowed when Saudi Arabia was elected by U.N. member states to serve on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, a body that promotes “gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

To be sure, there have been previous efforts to alter the lot of Saudi women. Campaigners have railed against the prohibition on driving, although with little impact. They have also campaigned over the past year to abolish the male guardianship system. On social media, activists created hashtags that trended for months, and Saudi women posted videos online of how the guardianship system is detrimental to their lives.

Last year, campaigners delivered a petition with more than 14,000 signatures calling on the king to abolish the system, according to Human Rights Watch.

One reason Salman may be listening now is Saudi Arabia’s recent economic struggles. With declining oil prices and large military spending for the Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen, women are increasingly being viewed as important to the economy’s well-being.

Last year, Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is a member of the royal family, declared that allowing women to drive could pump billions of dollars into the economy. And a recent government plan has called for increasing Saudi women’s role in the economy, including boosting their participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.

In fact, the king’s order to reform the male guardianship system also says that government agencies should work to provide transportation for woman seeking services because they are barred from driving.

According to Human Rights Watch, which says it has read the two-page order, Salman’s directive also expresses support for the kingdom’s Human Rights Commission to provide “programs to introduce international conventions that the kingdom has joined” and to develop a “comprehensive plan for raising awareness on women’s rights.”

The question now is, will such calls for reform become practice in the kingdom?