I’m not proud to be a Saudi woman. Why should I be proud of a country that is not proud of me?

—A Saudi woman (name withheld), Riyadh, December 7, 2006

Fatma A., a 40-year-old Saudi woman living in Riyadh, cannot board a plane without written permission from her guardian. As a divorced woman whose father is deceased, the Saudi authorities have now transferred her guardianship to her son. “My son is 23 years old and has to come all the way from the Eastern Province to give me permission to leave the country,” she said. Throughout much of the world, it is taken for granted that the law empowers both men and women upon reaching the age of majority (typically 18) to make decisions for themselves. In Saudi Arabia, however, the government denies more than half of its citizens this fundamental right.

The Saudi government has instituted a system whereby every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, who is tasked with making a range of critical decisions on her behalf. This policy, grounded in the most restrictive interpretation of an ambiguous Quranic verse, is the most significant impediment to the realization of women’s rights in the kingdom. The Saudi authorities essentially treat adult women like legal minors who are entitled to little authority over their own lives and well-being.

Every Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, is affected by these guardianship policies and the deprivation of rights that their enforcement entails. Adult women generally must obtain permission from a guardian to work, travel, study, or marry. Saudi women are similarly denied the right to make even the most trivial decisions on behalf of their children.

Male guardianship over adult women also contributes to their risk of confronting family violence and makes it nearly impossible for survivors of family violence to avail themselves of protection or redress mechanisms. Social workers, physicians, and lawyers told Human Rights Watch about the near impossibility of removing male guardianship of women and children, even from abusive male guardians.

Even where permission from a male guardian is not mandatory or even stipulated under the government’s own guidelines, some officials will ask for it, since the overarching system in place in the kingdom transfers virtually all decision-making power to a woman’s guardian. Officials may ask women for their guardian’s consent even where no law or guideline requires such consent because current practice assumes women have no power to make their own decisions. For example, several Saudi women and health professionals told Human Rights Watch that some hospitals require a guardian’s permission to allow women to undergo certain medical procedures and to be discharged.

While the government has taken some steps in recent years to limit the absolute power of guardians, there is little evidence that these measures are actually being implemented in practice. Saudi women told Human Rights Watch that despite a recent Ministry of Interior decision allowing women over the age of 45 to travel without permission, most airport officials continue to ask all women for written proof that their guardian has allowed them to travel.

Strictly enforced sex segregation adds to these barriers and hinders a Saudi woman’s ability to participate fully in public life. The Saudi government is willing to sacrifice a host of fundamental human rights in order to prevent the intermingling of men and women. In 2005 the absence of separate voting booths for women was used as an excuse to exclude them from the country’s first-ever municipal elections. For employers, the need to establish separate office spaces and women’s inability to interact with many government agencies without a male representative provide a significant disincentive to hiring women. In education, segregation often means that women are relegated to unequal facilities with inferior academic opportunities. Female students and professors also told Human Rights Watch that, unlike for their male counterparts, the gates to their colleges and departments are locked during teaching hours.

The government’s role in establishing and enforcing male guardianship and sex segregation is often ambiguous. In most manifestations of these practices, there appear to be no written legal provisions or official decrees explicitly mandating male guardianship and sex segregation, yet both practices are essentially universal inside Saudi Arabia. It is certainly the case that the government has done little to end these discriminatory practices and plays a central role in enforcing them. In doing so, the Saudi government chooses to ignore not only international law but even elements of the Islamic legal tradition that support equality between men and women. The religious establishment has consistently paralyzed any efforts to advance women’s rights by applying only the most restrictive provisions of Islamic law while disregarding more progressive interpretations and the evolving needs of a modern society.

Senior government officials consistently told Human Rights Watch that the kingdom needed to wait for society to accept the notion of women’s rights before the government could reform laws and policies in this area. Yet the Saudi government’s policies toward women, including its complicity in allowing guardianship and sex segregation to persist and to permeate every aspect of women’s lives, call into question its commitment to the advancement of women’s rights. It is clear that Saudi Arabia’s segregation and guardianship policies and practices are fundamentally affecting the ability of half its population to enjoy even their most basic rights, and are severely restricting their ability to participate meaningfully in society.

Saudi Arabia’s accession to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2001, however, obliges Saudi Arabia to take action to end discrimination against women without delay. For as long as it fails to take steps to eliminate the discriminatory practices of male guardianship and sex segregation, the Saudi government is scorning its international commitment to guarantee women and girls their rights to education, employment, freedom of movement, marriage with their free and full consent, and their right to health, including protection from and redress for family violence.

King Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud should promulgate by royal decree the dismantling of the legal guardianship system for adult women. The King should establish an oversight mechanism to ensure that government agencies no longer request permission from a guardian to allow adult women to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care, or access any public service. The Ministries of Health, Higher Education, Interior, and Labor should issue clear and explicit directives to their staff prohibiting them from requesting a guardian’s presence or permission to allow a woman access to any service, and they should ensure that women’s full realization of their rights is not compromised or jeopardized by segregation policies and practices.