In a vague statement published recently by a national newspaper in Saudi Arabia, the government announced that it will consider altering its restrictive male guardianship laws for women.

To be sure, women were not even mentioned — the announcement only said the government will consider 18 as the age at which "minors” will not require a legal guardian.

But the news nevertheless generated some expectation, along with uncertainty. No specifics were given. Currently, the laws require adult women to seek permission from male guardians — which could be a husband, brother or son — to travel, marry, enroll in educational opportunities, obtain a lifesaving abortion, or get a release from prison and other state-run institutions. The announcement mentioned the formation of a committee to study the changes intended for legislation.

This was reminiscent of a previous royal court decision in April 2017 to review, in three months, all the ministerial regulations requiring a male’s permission for women to access services or resources. More than two years later, little has been done on that front. The announcement of lifting the driving ban was expected in the 2000s but came to effect in 2018. Many viewed the decree of 2017 as a mere analgesic in response to the increasing social mobilization around the guardianship system, a move to buy time rather than actually bringing about any meaningful intervention.

Speculation abounds about the real intentions of the kingdom. But there’s no question that any changes in the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia, no matter how trivial, would improve the quality of their lives. What is worrying, though, is the state’s slow, piecemeal approach to the crippling system of male guardianship — a system that must be entirely uprooted.

At its core, the male guardianship system is based on the assumption that men are superior to women and therefore entitled to inspect and authorize women’s choices based on their own discretion. It is a pervasive set of written regulations and practiced social norms. It goes well beyond legislation. Male guardians have a right to veto women’s choices even if permission is not required by law. A few years ago, the state removed a clause in the labor law requiring the guardian’s permission to apply for jobs but made it optional for employers to request a guardian’s permission.

Guardians often file cases against women for being disobedient or leaving home — acts punishable by prison terms and flogging. Although women can still go to court to challenge their guardians’ denial of choices, the chances of success are minimal. In rare cases, another male guardian or the judge himself would replace the main guardian in acting as the decision-maker for the woman.

Reforming individual aspects of the guardianship system won’t liberate Saudi women from the control of men. As long as men hold the power to decide, all other rights achieved recently — to drive, work — will remain ephemeral.

In places such as Saudi Arabia, where decades of religious and cultural subjugation of women have been entrenched in regulations and practices and beliefs about women’s roles, there is no alternative but to counter such assumptions. Feminists in Saudi Arabia have been bravely engaging in public debates and community initiatives over the past two decades to counter the religious misogyny in society and to set a new gender norm. They have campaigned tirelessly (and at great personal risk) for lifting the driving ban, for greater work opportunities, for protection from domestic violence, for reforms of family laws and lately for abolishing the male guardian system.

Ideally, reforms should reflect women’s voices and experiences in framing and making decisions.

Yet research on authoritarian regimes suggests that women’s rights are often enacted to preserve non-democratic rule. Since the arrests and targeting of many of the Saudi female activists who have led the debates and mobilizations to gain more rights, an increasingly hostile domestic rhetoric against feminists is being promoted by some state-affiliated figures, including female members in the Shura Council.

In the Western media, the discussion is irrelevantly framed in light of increased gender mixing. Having men and women attend concerts, sporting events or movie theaters together with men does not automatically translate to advancement in legal rights or better representation for women. Nor does it add to a deeper understanding of women’s status in society or help their voices be heard without fear of retaliation.

This is a point that is often missed when commenting on social reforms in Saudi Arabia. The real mark of women’s rights reforms should be the ability of women to freely express their demands, form associations and lobby their government without persecution — goals that remain elusive to date.

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