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Old restrictions, new reforms: Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women

Jan 08. 2019
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By Agence France-Presse 

A desperate legal fight by 18-year-old Saudi Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun to stop her deportation from Bangkok airport has yet again shone a spotlight on the treatment of women in her homeland. 

Ultraconservative Saudi Arabia is striving to craft a new image – but a number of policies remain unchanged, leaving male relatives in charge of decisions that determine women’s lives. 

Here is where the Sunni Muslim kingdom stands on five core issues:



Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship system places the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of the men in their lives – fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. 

Under the system, women require the formal permission of their closest male relative to enrol in classes at home, or to travel to enrol in classes abroad. 

In July 2017, Saudi Arabia’s education ministry announced girls’ schools would begin to offer physical education classes for the first time, so long as they conformed with Islamic law. 

The ministry statement did not specify whether girls were required to have male permission to take the classes. 

Saudi Arabia is home to a number of women-only universities. 



Restrictions on women’s employment, long ruled by the guardianship system, have been loosened as Saudi Arabia tries to wean itself off its economic dependency on oil. 

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, named heir to the throne in June 2017, has pushed an economic plan, known as “Vision 2030”, that aims to boost the female quota in the workplace from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030. 

King Salman – his father – has signed off on decrees allowing women to apply online for their own business licences. Women are now also permitted to join the Saudi police force. 


Travel, driving 

Women still require male permission to renew their passports and leave the country.

But the biggest change over the past year came on June 24, 2018, when women took the driver’s seat for the first time in the kindgdom’s history. 

While the end of the driving ban was a welcome major step, a number of women’s rights activists were rounded up that same month and put behind bars – some of them campaigners for the right to drive. 


Personal status 

Under the guardianship system, women of any age cannot marry without the consent of their male guardian. 

A man may also divorce his wife without the woman’s consent. 

On Sunday, the Saudi justice ministry said courts were required to notify women by text message that their marriages had been terminated, a measure seemingly aimed at ending cases of men getting a divorce without informing their partners. 


Public spaces  

In January 2018, women were allowed into a special section in select sports stadiums for the first time. They had previously been banned from attending sporting events. 

Saudi Arabia has also dialled back the power of its infamous morality police force, or “mutawa”, who for decades patrolled the streets on the lookout for women with uncovered hair or bright nail polish. 

Some women in the capital, Riyadh, and other cities are now seen in public without headscarves. 

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