RIYADH: As Saudi women hail the news they will be able to drive their own cars from next June, they still face a web of restrictions in the conservative Islamic kingdom.
Chief among those is Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which requires a woman to get permission from a male family member for some of the most important and even mundane decisions of her life. That could mean a woman being compelled to ask her younger brother for permission to have a medical procedure or to travel abroad.
Women are generally not allowed to socialise with males outside their immediate families and can be thrown in prison for such an offence. At the end of their sentence, their male guardian may choose not to sign them out, leaving them in the care of the state.
A hole was poked in that restriction last week, with women allowed to enter a sports stadium in Riyadh for Saudi National Day – in a family section, away from single men.
Women are also restricted in marriage. In addition to the Islamic restriction found in most Arab countries preventing Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims, Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas [religious decrees] – a governmental body – has ruled a Sunni woman should not marry a “Shia man or a communist [atheist]”.
Other rules have been officially lifted, but are still enforced on an ad hoc basis by more zealous members of society.
In May, King Salman ordered government offices to allow women to obtain services without permission from a guardian, but left a caveat for Islamic law to take precedence.
The government no longer requires a guardian’s permission for women to work – the kingdom wants to boost women in the workforce as part of an ambitious reform programme announced last year – but activists say many employers still demand the permission before hiring.
The kingdom’s dress code requires women to wear an abaya [cloak] and veil, though the latter is selectively enforced. In Riyadh, some Saudi women have started showing their faces, a change in the conservative capital where most show only their eyes – if that.
Expatriate women, once obliged to veil, now get away with only an abaya.
Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif, who led the 2011 “Women2Drive” protest movement, is already looking to the next struggle:
“#Women2Drive done #IamMyOwnGuardian in progress,” she tweeted.
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