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Relaxing travel restrictions 'bittersweet victory' for Saudi women, as males still hold all the power Open in fullscreen

Sophia Akram

Relaxing travel restrictions 'bittersweet victory' for Saudi women, as males still hold all the power

Despite touting reforms, Saudi authorities continue to crush dissent [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 August, 2019

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Despite Saudi reforms on women's rights, much of the kingdom's draconian gender-based laws remain intact, writes Sophia Akram.

Saudi Arabia has a PR problem. Jamal Khashoggi was the latest headache, before that the Saudi-led coalition raining bombs on Yemen had been causing outrage, prior to which, allegations of Saudi-funded terrorism were doing the rounds, as was the link between Wahhabism and extremist ideology.

Throughout that all, there were the nuisance political prisoners that occasionally reared their head; and also the deeply entrenched patriarchal customs that were presented as shariah law, customs that have imposed a strict dress code on women and in the past have prevented them from driving and traveling without a mahram (a male kin who is impermissible to marry e.g. brother, father, son etc.). At some point, somewhere, and perhaps at every turn, most people have found the actions of the petrostate offensive: in the US and UK at least it is evident by underwhelming public opinion of relations with the country.

Despite this our western governments seem to like the Kingdom and the Saudi royal family likes them – it's a mutually gratifying relationship that keeps all parties' regional interests in check. Plus, it makes good business sense.

The Gulf rulers' penchant for human rights and civil liberty aberrations, however, are placing it all in jeopardy. A state-sanctioned extra-judicial murder that remains an open secret caused global outrage and an injunction on selling arms in the UK driven by civil society actors are making it increasingly hard for nations to do business with the despots.

A woman still must seek permission to marry for instance or to live on her own. Women can also not pass on citizenship to their children if they marry a foreigner

Their few concessions could help it, such as letting women make the decision to work, lifting the driving restriction, and now, a new decree allowing women to travel unaccompanied.

The phrase 'sticking plaster on gaping wound' comes to mind, as does the need to take the new law with a pinch, or tablespoon, of salt because the reality of women being able to travel freely may not yet be realised.

The royal decree was released as part of a set of decrees. As well as women over the age of 21 being able to apply for a passport without a male sponsor and travel outside of Saudi Arabia on their own, women will also be allowed to register a marriage, divorce or birth and obtain family documents, making it easier to get an identity card or become a child's legal guardian. There is news that students may be allowed to study abroad on scholarship without a mahram, which might lower the costs of study as well, improving access to education.

One of the problems with the decree, however, is that it does not go far enough and the reforms are less extensive than they appear to be.

After years of institutionalised male dominance, which continues, conservative elements in the country may struggle to reconcile with this new law and enforcement remains a question. While the decree goes into effect at the end of August, it's unclear what legal mechanisms or oversight will accompany it to ensure its enforcement. Male guardians can still ignore the law and not allow their female relatives to travel, placing women at square one. Women could still travel in defiance, which will bring on them another problem as Saudi activist Hala al-Dosari recently made the point, speaking to Reuters, that complaints of filial disobedience can still be filed by male guardians.

The news cycles have recently been awash with young female Saudi runaways seeking asylum abroad to escape abusive situations. The new laws still present no recourse for them.

This is therefore, by no means the toppling of the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia and many other aspects of it remain intact. A woman still must seek permission to marry for instance or to live on her own. Women can also not pass on citizenship to their children if they marry a foreigner and many grassroots groups say that recent reforms that grant greater access to healthcare or education are only implemented on an ad hoc basis. Women will also need the permission of a man to open a bank account, to leave prison, a government-run shelter or to file a lawsuit.

The news cycles have recently been awash with young female Saudi runaways seeking asylum abroad to escape abusive situations. The new laws still present no recourse for them.

Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's notorious Crown Prince said that the guardianship laws were sensitive and couldn't be done away with completely. One thing that does speak to and which rings true is that the socialisation process of equivocating women with men in the kingdom will take longer than the time it takes to issue a royal decree. Even with previous relaxation of rules, groups still say there are challenges in attaining parity in the workplace and for women to enjoy the full freedom of driving on Saudi streets.

Norms and attitudes have to be transformed but these need to be replicated from the top and there are obvious sticking points here.

As human rights campaigners said in response to the new laws, the reforms are a "bittersweet victory" for women as many of those who fought for changes – the right to drive – still face 20 years in prison amid reports they have been tortured and abused.

Herein lies the bluff, under the veneer of progression lies traditional oppression and a system of heavy handed reprisals against criticism.

There's no use trying to hoodwink the public that Saudi Arabia is truly progressing and it can be seen why some of the laws have remain unchanged. Filial obedience simply replicates the ruling family's overarching need for mass obedience from its citizens. Members of the royal family can literally get away with murder to protect that.

The push for increasing women’s rights starts and ends with ensuring wider freedoms by those at the top.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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