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Saudi Arabia women’s rights reforms may still be thwarted by custom

Amnesty said that the Saudi authorities had detained activists who defended women’s right to drive — Loujain Al-Halloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, and Aziza Al-Yousef — for more than 100 days with neither charge nor trials [Twitter]
Amnesty said that the Saudi authorities had detained activists who defended women’s right to drive — Loujain Al-Halloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, and Aziza Al-Yousef — for more than 100 days with neither charge nor trials [Twitter]

Saudi officials have hailed as “historic” new rights granted to women in Saudi Arabia that further dismantle its heavily criticised guardianship system, but male relatives could still find ways to thwart these freedoms, Reuters reports.

Thousands of Saudi women took to social media to celebrate royal decrees on Friday that allow women above 21 to travel without permission as of the end of August. Women also now have the right to register births, marriages and divorces, to be issued official family documents and be guardians to minors.

Experts, however, say male relatives can still obstruct women defying their wishes through legal avenues or informal routes in the ultra-conservative kingdom, where it will take time to change views on gender and social customs.

“We need enforcement of these laws and the establishment of reporting mechanisms when these policies are not being upheld, as well as watchdog organizations,” said Hala al-Dosari, a US-based Saudi women’s rights expert.

Male guardians can still file cases of disobedience and absence from home against women, Dosari said. The government recognises filial disobedience as a crime.

“These two cases, punishable by imprisonment and flogging, are representative of the wider legal control of women’s autonomy by men that still needs to be dismantled,” she added.

READ: Saudi Arabia lifts travel restrictions on women, grants them greater control

It would be especially important to see how Saudi courts deal with challenges by male guardians, said Tamara Wittes, senior fellow at Brookings Institution.

Riyadh has long endured international censure over the guardianship system that assigns each women a male relative – a father, brother, husband or son – whose approval was needed for various big decisions throughout a woman’s life.

Without a codified system of law to go with the texts making up sharia, or Islamic law, the Saudi police and judiciary have long cited social customs in enforcing prohibitions on women.

Some aspects of the guardianship system remain intact, including requirement for permission to marry, a legal necessity in many Gulf Arab states for Muslim marriages.

Some Saudi women still have doubts.

“Our culture and upbringing will prevent us from travelling without our guardian approval even if it is our right,” Riyadh resident Bodoor, who declined to provide her surname, told Reuters, motoring her mother around the capital after a ban on women driving was lifted last year.

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