Saudi women have been promised they will be allowed to drive by mid-2018, but they are still forbidden from doing many things women in other countries take for granted.
Rights groups have welcomed King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia’s decree to allow women in the country to drive.
The decree ordered a committee be set up to help implement the change according to “established legal regulations”.
The decree is expected to be implemented by June 2018.
However, even if the bill is passed, women are still confronted with significant barriers to participating fully in Saudi Arabian society.
The guardianship system
In Saudi Arabia, every woman has a male guardian, either their father, brother, husband or son, who are given the authority to make decisions on her behalf.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation by UN member states to end its guardianship system, but it did not follow through with its commitment. In 2013 it again agreed to abolish the system after its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In April 2017, King Salman issued an order that women should not be denied government services because they did not have approval from a male guardian “unless there is a regulatory obligation for this request”, it is yet to be enforced.
The order, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, required government agencies to submit a list of procedures that require approval by a male guardian, suggesting they might be reviewed to give women greater freedom.
If the order is enforced, women would have greater access to public education. For example, male guardians would no longer be required to approve the enrolments of women into public universities.
But Amnesty International said in its statement, “we also need to see a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices swept away in Saudi Arabia, including the guardianship system.”
Human Rights Watch, which monitors the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, says the guardianship system prevents women from the following rights.
Effects of guardianship system
Women must get permission from their guardian to access healthcare.
Saudi women must gain approval from their guardian to enrol into public universities.
Saudi Arabian women are prevented from travelling abroad unless they have gained approval from their male guardian. This includes travelling abroad on a government scholarship.
Having a passport
Saudi Arabian women are not able to obtain a passport without the approval of their male guardian.
Women must get the consent of their male guardian to marry.
Even if they have finished their sentence, women must have their guardian’s permission before they can leave jail.
Human Rights Watch says women often have trouble managing property, such as renting, or filing for legal assistance unless a male is with them.
According to Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, as of July 2016, most public schools in the country did not provide physical education for females.
Women were forbidden from participating in national tournament or state-run sports leagues.
However, the country is making progress towards greater rights in sports. In August 2016, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Sports announced it would open a female department. That same month four women represented Saudi Arabia in the Rio Olympics.