Saudi Arabia changed its guardianship laws, but activists who fought them remain imprisoned

A woman walks past a portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. | Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi women can now travel without the permission of a male guardian and now have employment discrimination protections.

Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved a royal decree this week put forth by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that would loosen some of the restrictions placed on women through the kingdom’s network of so-called “guardianship laws,” a move critics say is too little, too late.

The decree marks the most significant changes to date of Saudi Arabia’s wilayah, or guardianship, system — a network of regulations on the movements and behavior of women that required them to seek the permission or accompaniment of a close male relative in matters of work, leisure, finances, law, and health.

The new law permits unprecedented mobility to women, including the right to obtain a passport and travel abroad without a male relative’s permission. Any Saudi over 21 — regardless of gender — will now be able to obtain, renew, and use a passport.

It also extends to the workplace and the home. Women will now receive standard employment discrimination protections. They now also have the right to register the births of their children, live apart from their husbands, and obtain family records. And along with her husband, a woman can also now register as a co-head of household.

On Twitter, Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, called these new laws “history in the making.”

“I am elated to confirm that KSA [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] will be enacting amendments to its labor and civil laws that are designed to elevate the status of Saudi women within our society,” she wrote, “Including granting them the right to apply for passports and travel independently.”

I am elated to confirm that KSA will be enacting amendments to its labor and civil laws that are designed to elevate the status of Saudi women within our society, including granting them the right to apply for passports and travel independently. 1/4

— Reema Bandar Al-Saud (@rbalsaud) August 2, 2019

These developments have been a long time coming. From the inclusion of women in the consultative council to issuing driving licenses to women, our leadership has proved its unequivocal commitment to gender equality. 2/4

— Reema Bandar Al-Saud (@rbalsaud) August 2, 2019

These new regulations are history in the making. They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society. It is a holistic approach to gender equality that will unquestionably create real change for Saudi women. 3/4

— Reema Bandar Al-Saud (@rbalsaud) August 2, 2019

Women have always played an integral role in our country’s development, and they will continue to do so moving forward on equal footing with their male counterparts. 4/4

— Reema Bandar Al-Saud (@rbalsaud) August 2, 2019

The new laws are expected to go into effect at the end of August, according to the Wall Street Journal, which added that widespread change may be slow to be implemented given that many aspects of the guardianship system are upheld as much by custom as by law.

And the decree does not end the system completely. Guardianship rules will continue to govern many other aspects of a woman’s life, including marriage and exiting prison. The same Wall Street Journal article points out that a woman must still seek a male guardian’s permission to enter a domestic violence shelter.

And some elements of implementation will need to be worked out, Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the L.A. Times. For example, the new law that says a woman does not have to live with her husband could come into conflict with his legal right to file a claim of “disobedience” against her.

“So how will this work?” Coogle asked. “Will the judge cite this change to the civil status law and say you have no right to demand this, or base his judgment on sharia law, where a woman has to obey her husband?”

The guardianship system has received increased attention in recent years, particularly as a large number of women have fled the country and applied for asylum elsewhere. Many have cited the restrictive guardianship system as their reason for leaving.

Inside the kingdom, as women’s rights activists have called for changes, many have been imprisoned, and some have allegedly been tortured. One such activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, was imprisoned on the eve of a heralded change to Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women driving. She remains in prison where she is facing treason charges and has allegedly been tortured by a top lieutenant to bin Salman.

Human rights activists cautiously praised the changes while calling for activists like al-Hathloul to be released.

“Saudi Arabia’s long overdue legal reforms should provide Saudi women a much greater degree of control over their lives,” Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “But this is a bittersweet victory as courageous Saudi women who pushed for these changes remain behind bars or face unfair trials.”

Human Rights Watch also notes that, despite widespread reporting that the new law lifts all restrictions on women’s rights to leave the country, a government-run mobile app for accessing Interior Ministry services, including travel documentation and visas, still offers men the option of declining travel for female dependents.

“This should be the beginning of the end of the notorious male guardianship system and the authorities should promptly dismantle the rest of it,” Begum’s statement went on to say.

Critics believe bin Salman wants to distract from human rights abuses at home and abroad

This is not the first move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to loosen the guardianship laws. Last year, he lifted a ban on women driving and another on certain forms of gender mixing, which permitted women to attend a soccer match for the first time.

And in April of 2017, he ordered government agencies not to deny government services to women who did not have a male guardian’s consent “unless existing regulations require it,” according to Human Rights Watch. That order did not change regulations on women’s ability to get a passport or travel abroad — two rights now granted to women under the new decree.

The prince is young (33-years-old), is often referred to by his initials (MBS), and has repeatedly signaled a desire to be seen as an upstart and a reformer. That campaign has worked in some corners of the media, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has described:

60 Minutes hailed him as a “revolutionary” who is “emancipating women” in Saudi Arabia. CNBC ran a piece with the headline “Mohammed bin Salman is bringing Silicon Valley-style disruption to Saudi Arabia.” On Wednesday, the prince had dinner with Morgan Freeman, director James Cameron, and The Rock, who wrote an Instagram post lavishing praise on the autocrat.

“A pleasure to have a private dinner with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman,” The Rock wrote. “Fascinating experience to hear his deep rooted, yet modern views on the world and certainly the positive growth he desires for his country.”

But bin Salman has also overseen a widespread crackdown on dissidents, including anti-guardianship activists. In April, his government detained eight people — among them, two US citizens and a pregnant woman — because of their activism on behalf of women’s rights. Recent reports have revealed a campaign to surveil and silence his critics using tactics like forced repatriation, imprisonment, torture, and executions.

And bin Salman is also implicated in the “extrajudicial killing” of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who wrote, often critically, about the Gulf kingdom for the Washington Post. In October, 2018, Khashoggi was detained, murdered, and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. According to a 100-page report from the United Nations, “credible evidence” exists linking the crown prince himself to Khashoggi’s brutal murder.

“Every expert consulted finds it inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the crown prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched,” the UN report states. And the CIA’s investigation into the killing found “with high confidence” bin Salman was not just aware of the murder, but that he personally ordered it.

The crown prince has also overseen his country’s war in Yemen that has led to an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis that, according to the UN, has left 10 million people “one step away from famine,” 10 million more without regular access to food, and over 200,000 people dead.

While bin Salman’s latest reforms to the wilayah system have been greeted with open arms, they do not take away from the conspicuous and insidious forms of repression that remain in his kingdom, from international accusations that he is behind the brutal murder of a journalist, or from his role in Yemen’s crisis. The crown prince’s newest decree did not free any political prisoners, and given women who flouted the driving ban remained in custody following its repeal, it is unlikely the new laws will lead to freedom for the very activists who have been calling for these changes from the beginning.

This has led some experts, like Saudi anthropologist Madawi Al-Rasheed, to suggest the crown prince is looking for good publicity in the face of bad press, particularly around women fleeing Saudi Arabia to seek asylum elsewhere.

“Mohammed bin Salman is desperate to improve the world’s view of the country,” Al-Rasheed told the New York Times; Omaima Al-Najjar, a Saudi activist living in Italy called changes to the guardianship system “bread crumbs,” and said activists would not be satisfied with the new rules alone: “The demand for equal rights is ongoing until all rights are given.”

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