RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi officials have hailed as “historic” new rights granted to women in Saudi Arabia that further dismantle its heavily criticized guardianship system, but male relatives could still find ways to thwart these freedoms.
Thousands of Saudi women took to social media to celebrate royal decrees on Friday that allow women above 21 to travel without permission as of the end of August. Women also now have the right to register births, marriages and divorces, to be issued official family documents and be guardians to minors.
Experts, however, say male relatives can still obstruct women defying their wishes through legal avenues or informal routes in the ultra-conservative kingdom, where it will take time to change views on gender and social customs.
“We need enforcement of these laws and the establishment of reporting mechanisms when these policies are not being upheld, as well as watchdog organizations,” said Hala al-Dosari, a U.S.-based Saudi women’s rights expert.
Male guardians can still file cases of disobedience and absence from home against women, Dosari said. The government recognizes filial disobedience as a crime.
“These two cases, punishable by imprisonment and flogging, are representative of the wider legal control of women’s autonomy by men that still needs to be dismantled,” she added.
It would be especially important to see how Saudi courts deal with challenges by male guardians, said Tamara Wittes, senior fellow at Brookings Institution.
Riyadh has long endured international censure over the guardianship system that assigns each women a male relative - a father, brother, husband or son - whose approval was needed for various big decisions throughout a woman’s life.
Without a codified system of law to go with the texts making up sharia, or Islamic law, the Saudi police and judiciary have long cited social customs in enforcing prohibitions on women.
Some aspects of the guardianship system remain intact, including requirement for permission to marry, a legal necessity in many Gulf Arab states for Muslim marriages.
Some Saudi women still have doubts.
“Our culture and upbringing will prevent us from traveling without our guardian approval even if it is our right,” Riyadh resident Bodoor, who declined to provide her surname, told Reuters, motoring her mother around the capital after a ban on women driving was lifted last year.
Riyadh’s new envoys to the United States and Britain hailed the decrees as a signal of the kingdom’s will to reform at a time of heightened scrutiny of its human rights record after last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents caused an outcry and strained ties with Western allies.
Princess Reema bint Bandar, ambassador to Washington, tweeted that this was “history in the making”.
“This may seem like a small step but it is, nonetheless, transformative for Saudi women,” Prince Khaled bin Bandar said in a statement issued by the embassy in London.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was praised abroad and at home after coming to power in 2017 for loosening social restrictions and opening up the economy. He reined in the religious morality police, allowed public concerts and cinemas and eased restrictions on gender mixing.
But his image has been tarnished by Khashoggi’s killing and the detention and alleged torture of almost a dozen women’s rights activists arrested last year shortly before and after the lifting of the driving ban. He has also arrested scores of clerics in a crackdown on dissent.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said long overdue reforms were a bittersweet victory since women who championed them remain imprisoned or facing unfair trials. Saudi officials deny the allegations, including those of torture.
Few charges have been made public but those against at least some of the activists relate to contacts with foreign journalists, diplomats and human rights groups.
“Repression and reform go hand in hand in Saudi. Women activists represent a major threat to his (prince’s) rule, they speak the language of rights,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre.
“The crown prince wants to take all the credit, he is presenting these reforms as a gift to the Saudi citizens not as their rights,” she said, adding that authorities need to ensure new regulations will not be reversed or abandoned later on.
In contrast to large media coverage of the lifting of the ban on driving, neither state TV nor the news agency announced Friday’s decrees, which were published in the official gazette.
A member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, Hoda al-Helaissi, said there will likely be resistance by some.
“But like all changes and reforms that have taken place in the Kingdom, this too will become matter-of-fact,” she said.
Reporting by Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Lisa Barrington, Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Cawthorne