Saudi women have lobbied for an end to systematic discrimination against them for many years – could this long wait be nearing an end?
In April, King Salman issued an order stipulating that government agencies cannot deny women access to government services simply because they do not have a male guardian’s consent unless existing regulations require it. If adequately enforced, the order could end arbitrary guardian consent requirements that government bureaucracies impose on women.
Under the order, all government agencies were to provide a list by mid-July of procedures that require male guardian approval, suggesting that authorities might review these rules and regulations and even eliminate some. But since July, the government has been silent on this.
So while the Saudi authorities may be rethinking the country’s longstanding policies toward women, they have not stipulated how and when these reforms will come to pass. Saudi leaders are kicking the hard questions down the road and asking women to be patient.
The importance of the April order, though exaggerated by local news agencies, is clear. If it was enforced, public universities, for example, would not be able to require a guardian’s approval for women to enroll and attend classes. However, the order is still limited – it kept in place regulations that explicitly require guardian approval, such as for women to travel abroad, obtain a passport, or get married, and still allowed private individuals and entities to ask women for their guardian’s permission at their own discretion.
The authorities should not miss this opportunity to meaningfully change the ways in which women can participate in Saudi society. Enforcing the April order should just be the start. Next, the authorities should dismantle all aspects of the guardianship rules, including those written into existing regulations, laws, or policies, and punishing private actors that discriminate against women by requiring guardianship approval.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, its supposed “vision for the future,” declares women to be a “great asset” whose talents will be developed for the good of society and the economy. If Saudi Arabia wants women to fully participate in public life, authorities should end the male guardianship system, starting with state-enforced restrictions on women that include travel abroad, obtaining a passport, or driving. Saudi women have already waited too long.