Léa Pelard reports on the situation of women rights in Saudi Arabia, following a number of progressive royal decrees
The past months have brought significant change in Saudi Arabia, offering more freedom to women while reshaping and modernising the cultural landscape in the conservative kingdom.
Last week, the Saudi government announced on Twitter that women in Saudi Arabia will have the right to start businesses without the consent of a male guardian. Until now, women needed a guardian’s approval, usually the husband, father or brother, without which they couldn’t start their own company.
The 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, son of the current king, has set out to reinvent the Saudi economy by the year 2030.
The crash in crude oil prices, which started in 2014, has left the country with a huge budget deficit. The oil-rich kingdom has been forced to look beyond oil. The ambitious post-oil economy plan hopes to increase women’s participation in the workforce and diversify the country’s industries.
Last September, a royal decree announced that women will be able to drive from June 2018, lifting women’s driving ban that existed until then. Saudi Arabia will no longer be the only country in the world where women were forbidden to drive. Before this decree women who were driving in public ran the risk of getting arrested and fined.
In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif, Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, filmed herself driving a car in Saudi Arabia and posted the video on YouTube, calling women to participate in a Women2Drive campaign. A few days later, she was arrested and put in jail for 9 days before being released.
When the Saudi government announced that women were eventually allowed to drive, her first reaction was posting a photo of herself behind the wheel of a car.
“Women’s rights activists will still continue to observe how this law is implemented and monitored and will continue campaigning to abolish the male guardianship imposed on them,” al-Sharif stated on her website. “We ask for nothing short of full equality for women.”
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres tweeted it is “an important step in the right direction”.
I welcome Saudi Arabia's decision to lift the ban on women drivers. An important step in the right direction.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) September 27, 2017
But other organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said that this is “just one step,” with a lot more to be done to allow Saudi women the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
In Saudi Arabia, every Saudi woman must have a male guardian. A woman needs the permission of a man to marry, travel abroad, study, rent a property, and obtain a passport. It means that a Saudi woman’s life is controlled by a man from birth until death. Even if guardianship is not written in the law, the entire country, from government officials to the courts act in accordance with it.
This move by the government to allow women to start their own businesses without male consent may open the door for discussion on the guardian system, allowing the female population the same rights that we take for granted.
“We ask for nothing short of full equality for women”
Saudi women’s rights activists next target refers to dismantling the kingdom’s guardianship system, which Human Rights Watch has called “the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country“.
The ultra conservative country is the 7th worst country in the world in term of gender equality. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report ranked Saudi Arabia 138 out of 144 countries. Although it is one of the worst countries to live in in term of women’s rights, the rise to prominence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sparked positive change in the kingdom, granting women more and more rights that weren’t imaginable in the past for Saudi Arabia.
In early January, Saudi women were allowed into a sports stadium for the first time to watch a soccer match between two local teams. However, this permission isn’t permanent yet, as the rest of the country’s football grounds will be ready for female fans by the beginning of the next season, including separate cafes and prayer rooms.
The ambitious post-oil economy plan is modernizing and liberalizing women’s rights little by little. Women’s rights activist fight isn’t over, as most of basic rights are still not granted to women. However, Prince Mohammed bin Salman first months of work are promising and are serving as a beacon of hope for Saudi women.