Big changes for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

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WOMEN in Saudi Arabia will no longer require the consent of a male guardian to obtain state services. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman last month issued a landmark decree, giving greater freedom and rights to a half of the country’s population.It is a confirmation of the state’s intention to enable women to freely enjoy their right to education, employment, healthcare and a host of other services.

The decree, which came after Saudi Arabia was appointed to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, states that women are no longer required to obtain the permission of a male guardian to request the services of public or private institutions unless there is a legal basis for such a requirement in accordance with the Shariah.

In the past Saudi women applying for various government services were obliged to provide written consent from their guardians for their applications to be processed. The guardian can be father, brother, husband, or son.

This provision had created endless problems especially for women without male relatives who could act as their guardians.

The supreme authorities have asked all related agencies to review within three months procedures that still require a guardian’s approval to complete before the requirement will be finally lifted.

Saudi women required the guardian’s approval for many of their everyday activities from education and employment to opening bank accounts or visiting doctors.

Welcoming the royal decree, Human Rights Commission President Bandar Al-Aiban said it reflected King Salman’s keenness to simplify procedures for women.

She said currently there is no condition in the system requiring the consent of a guardian for many services.

“I myself have undergone key surgeries without the consent of a male guardian. I have not been asked to get the guardian’s consent in the banks or in the judiciary. The sales and purchase contracts have not required it either. Many women in the country already enjoy such rights,” she said.

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, professor of history and writer, said the royal decision heralds the beginning of a new era for Saudi women. “The new era will be characterized by firmness and determination to rid Saudi Arabia of the roots of patriarchal hegemony externally and internally with regard to the rights of women,” Al-Fassi said.

“This decree brings us to the path of rights and legality, and puts an end to the age of personal whims,” she added.

Al-Fassi said the decision confirms Saudi Arabia’s access to the UN Commission on the Status of Women was well deserved.

This will also put an end to the confusion over women status in Saudi Arabia that had always been a cause of embarrassment for the country on the global stage, she said.

“I am happy that the Kingdom is finally adopting the culture of international conventions that it has joined. I am also happy that a timetable is set to implement the decision, which means the matter will not be left to the discretion of anyone,” Al-Fassi said.

“It is inconceivable that women remain hostages to interpretations that can be narrowed, while we should have recognized that all citizens are equal as regards to rights and duties. I hope a decisive solution to the issue of women’s transportation would be forthcoming.”

Dr. Samia Al-Amoudi of King Abdulaziz University said the decree means breaking the taboo surrounding women’s issues in Saudi Arabia.

With regard to the need for awareness and for the Human Rights Commission to disseminate information on women’s rights, she said it is important to recognize international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and it means the recognition of the right to freedom of movement.

Male guardianship has always been an obstacle to women and it is demeaning because some men abuse their authority over women to take advantage, said Maha Akeel, director of public information and communication at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

According to Akeel, the decree recognizes the right of a woman “to be her own guardian and take care of her official matters.”

This means women could, in some circumstances, study and access hospital treatment, work in the public and private sector and represent themselves in court without the consent of a male guardian.

“Now at least it opens the door for discussion on the guardian system,” Akeel told Reuters. “Saudi women are independent and can take care of themselves.”

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