‘The wheels of time will not turn back’: Saudi women eye new freedoms

Why We Wrote This

What would freedom look like for women in Saudi Arabia? The conservative kingdom has not followed the same path as the West, but a variety of factors has been leading it to make changes.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP/File
Hessah al-Ajaji drives her car down busy Tahlia Street after midnight for the first time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018.

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Fatema, a Saudi communications worker, says her country’s restrictions on women have hindered her career development. “For years, Saudi women have been at a permanent disadvantage by being tied down in a global economy,” she says.

Under the kingdom’s so-called male guardianship system, Saudi women have needed the approval of a male relative or spouse to obtain a passport, travel outside Saudi Arabia, or study abroad. But now, Saudi official sources say that lifting those restrictions is “imminent.” Such a move would follow the one last year that granted women the right to drive.

“If we can travel freely for work or study, we immediately become more employable to international organizations and companies,” says Fatema, who did not want to give her full name so as not to publicly criticize the current system.

In order to head off resistance among conservative segments of society, officials have been careful to package the reforms as part of an economic agenda key to Saudis’ prosperity.

“The argument is always one of economic necessity, but even those top-down efforts ... still have to go through society,” says Firas Maksad, executive director of the Arabia Foundation.

Currently, Saudi women still require the approval of a male relative or spouse to obtain a passport, travel outside Saudi Arabia, or even study abroad. It’s a patriarchal system controlling women’s lives that has left the kingdom out of step with the rest of the world for decades.

But the country is set to end those travel restrictions. Saudi newspaper Okaz recently announced that the government has formed a committee to review “ending guardianship of a minor at the age of 18,” discontinuing a system that has treated adult women functionally and legally as minors for their entire lives.

For some citizens, this is an unwelcome step that would dismantle the core part of the so-called male guardianship system, under which Saudi women also needed the permission of a male relative or spouse to work or to access basic services in years past. But for others, this is a key development that can open up opportunities for women.

“If we can travel freely for work or study, we immediately become more employable to international organizations and companies,” says Fatema, a Saudi communications worker who did not want to give her full name so as not to publicly criticize the current system, which she says has hindered her career development. “For years, Saudi women have been at a permanent disadvantage by being tied down in a global economy.”

But the import of the change goes far beyond economics, observers say.

“Women who face domestic abuse and violence are particularly at risk because they are prohibited from fleeing without approval,” says Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Removing the travel restrictions would deal a significant blow to the male guardianship system and give women greater control over their lives.”

This wouldn’t be the first time in recent years the country has changed its policies regarding women. In 2017, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued an edict ending the legal requirement of a male guardian’s approval for women to access government services, be employed, travel within Saudi Arabia, or be admitted to a hospital. Adherence to the edict, however, has been spotty.

In another benchmark, in June 2018 Saudi women were granted the right to drive, allowing their free movement within their own country.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun (center) stands with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (right) as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 12, 2019. The Saudi teen fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign that drew global attention. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would accept her as a refugee.

Now, Saudi official sources have confirmed that the move to end the male guardianship of women over age 18 is “imminent,” and they say authorities are fine-tuning regulations to “put Saudi Arabia on track to become a modern economy and a society where all its citizens can achieve their aspirations.”

In the opaque kingdom, where public opinion polling is scarce and dissent is muffled, authorities often use such media leaks to gauge the reaction of citizens on social media and to tailor the packaging and implementation of their decisions. But with the country unwilling to force conservative families and even companies to abide by the recently loosened restrictions, questions remain about whether a new change will lead to social acceptance of Saudi women’s growing mobility and rights.

For their part, Saudi women, many of whom have taken to Twitter and Facebook to praise the move, are calling the proposed end of travel restrictions the “completion” of a march to women’s empowerment in the ultraconservative kingdom.

“Women driving is the greatest example, and before that [access to] work and women’s empowerment,” Souad al-Shammary, a Jeddah-based women’s rights activist and commentator, wrote in a tweet on the impending decision. “We will remember these days. ... The wheels of time will not turn back.”

Why now?

The move comes as powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, beleaguered abroad due to the kingdom’s human rights abuses, seeks to counter the bad PR that has resulted from high-profile cases in which Saudi women have fled their families while abroad and applied for asylum.

Insiders say that the carefully orchestrated move aims to rehab an image stained by the Yemen war and the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Consulate. The move also aims to show, as one insider says, that “women’s rights are a shared value between Saudi and the U.S.” and “we are not so different as the media says.”

But this comes at a time when Americans’ support of Saudi Arabia is at its lowest levels in decades, despite the current White House’s enthusiasm for Saudi rulers.

About two-thirds of Americans, 67%, have a mostly unfavorable or very unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia, according to a February Gallup poll; a poll released this month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that 50% of Americans believe the U.S.-Saudi relationship does more to weaken U.S. national security than to strengthen it.

“The social liberalization and transformation that is underway should have generally scored points for the government in the West and won it favor, but that clearly hasn’t happened,” says Firas Maksad, executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank familiar with the decision-making process in Riyadh.

The move can also be seen as a gesture to the crown prince’s base: young Saudis. He has carefully courted those under the age of 30 – who make up 60% of the population – by promising social and economic reforms, attracting tech companies, and bringing Western entertainment to the kingdom.

Ending male guardianship over women plays well with much of this segment, Saudi observers say.

An economic agenda

To be sure, the move has economic implications.

In order to head off resistance among conservative segments of society that claim the West is trying to impose social change on the socially conservative Muslim kingdom, officials in Riyadh have been careful to package the wide-ranging social reforms as part of an economic agenda key to Saudis’ prosperity.

They link the reforms to the crown prince’s Vision 2030, a road map that looks to increase the percentage of women in the workforce to 30% and to grow the country’s private sector.

Currently, women make up 16.7% of the Saudi workforce, according to the World Bank, one of the lowest rates in the world. Saudi Arabia ranked 145th out of 149 nations in women’s economic participation and opportunity in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Index.

But with unemployment hovering around 12.5% and a rising number of Saudis entering the workforce at a time when the government is limiting hiring to address a $35 billion deficit, Riyadh is bracing households for both spouses to become breadwinners.

Still, it is believed that more women’s economic activity is key to weaning the kingdom off its oil-dependent economy – and the travel restrictions have been putting Saudi women at a disadvantage in the global economy.

“The argument is always one of economic necessity, but even those top-down efforts, which have been very clear and systematic coming from the king and encouraged by the crown prince, still have to go through society,” says Mr. Maksad of the Arabia Foundation.

Reception in the kingdom

The real response in Saudi society to such a dramatic change has been difficult to gauge.

Clerics known for independent streaks and strong followings within Saudi Arabia and on social media, such as Salman al-Odeh, have been imprisoned over the past two years and threatened with execution.

Other clerics either have been tight-lipped or have become cheerleaders for the crown prince’s policies, often contradicting their previous edicts and stances to appear on board with the regime’s new vision.

On social media the reaction has been mixed, with many Saudis insisting that the guardianship system “protects our societies,” “protects our sisters and daughters,” and is “wisdom from God.”

Yet many young Saudis, particularly women, have rejoiced over the potential reform as a “day to remember” and say that it, along with the discontinued driving ban, is the cornerstone to “women’s empowerment.”

Concerns and caveats

But even as the country moves toward upending a system that rights watch groups call “institutionalized discrimination,” skepticism remains about whether a change in the legal books will actually trickle down to life at home.

Despite revisions in 2017 to several laws that had required male guardianship approval for services and employment, violators have not been prosecuted. Hotels, hospitals, employers, and even government agencies still request male guardianship approval – often, they say, out of concern of a backlash from conservative families and communities.

“Despite all the Saudi PR campaigns and rhetoric around women’s rights reforms, the basics of the Saudi male guardianship system remain in place,” says Mr. Coogle at Human Rights Watch.

He adds, “The Saudi government actively enforces restrictions on Saudi women’s travel abroad and does not prevent discrimination by private sector firms such as employers or heath care providers.”

Critics warn that only wealthy and liberal Saudis may be able to take advantage of a new system, while more conservative families would find ways to prevent their female members from obtaining a passport or traveling abroad.

Although all agree that amending travel restrictions would deal a “significant blow” to the male guardianship system, with the government jailing women’s rights activists, questions remain about how far the regime will actually go.

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