Torn Apart by Repression and Reform: Saudi Women’s Fragile Freedom

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman

In a welcome move, Saudi Arabian women will no longer need to take the permission of their male guardians before travelling.  This is indeed a welcome move towards dismantling of controls  that have so far made women second class citizens in the country.

Along with the clean chit to move about freely without taking the permission of their male guardians, other decrees now allow women to apply for passports, register a marriage/divorce/child birth and have access to the issue of official family documents. The decrees now also allow women and men to be guardians of their children by themselves. The facility of getting access to official family documents means that it will now become easier for women to get their children admitted to school and it will now become easier for them to obtain the national identity card also.

While this recent legislation may be considered a welcome move, there are however many such patriarchal rules in the country that make it mandatory to take the consent of a male if a woman is to be released from jail or if she is to marry somebody and even decide to exit an exploitative women’s shelter Women in Saudi Arabia continue to find themselves in a position where it if impossible for them to pass n citizenship to their children like their male counterparts and give consent to their children to marry the partner of their choice. In Saudi Arabia, women live a life completely dependent on the will of their male guardians and it is considered to be their ‘goodwill’ that will carve their life paths.

The step to allow women to travel without taking the permission of their male guardians comes in the context of the recent fleeing of many women from the government and seeking asylum from their own families and the government.

It was in the last year that the country’s government had arrested many of the activists who had been advocating women’s rights. Many of these activists were women and this is considered one of the biggest crackdowns on activists in the country in recent times.

We would recall that the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia was only lifted in the previous year and now it is time for the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia to celebrate its second victory. The lifting on the ban on solo travel for women is a landmark step especially in a country where the guardian system has so far been all pervasive. Under the guardian system women are not considered to be legal citizens and consequently the state allows them only to be represented through their male counterparts.

It is their male guardians who are seen responsible for representing them as well as proving for their basic needs such as those related to work/study/travel/medical care and allow/deny permission in the context of their movement outside the domestic sphere. This enforced quarantine on women has been going on for centuries and has allowed men unprecedented power over women, depriving them of all political, civil and human rights.  Even within the all the Islamic countries, no other country is known to have such an all pervading guardianship system as Saudi Arabia.

Among the many women activists responsible for compelling the nation’s leadership to reformulate and rethink its repressive laws against women are presently in prison or have fled to another country and sought asylum. Therefore, what we can clearly witness in Saudi Arabia is a clear combination of two contradictory forces- repression on the one hand and reform on the other. While the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has taken many new initiatives for the empowerment of women such as making advances in bringing them out of their homes to public life by offering them employment, appointing women to high profile positions in the government but at the same time we also see how the patriarchal/ regressive structure of the state also continues to suppress the voices of dissent and continues to look at women as second class citizens.

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