In what appears to be a hasty measure to appease critics over Saudi Arabia’s draconian male guardianship rules, King Salman has issued a new order, allowing women “greater access to government services without the consent of a male relative.”
Just to be (very) clear, this directive doesn’t end male guardianship but merely loosens some restrictions. For instance, Saudi women will have access “to a job, higher education or medical procedures, without a male guardian's permission,” according to the Associated Press.
However, whether or not the order addresses the controversial issue of women needing approval of a male relative to travel within and outside the country is still unclear.
In addition, local daily newspaper Okaz reports the male guardianship will not apply to women “unless there is a legal basis for this request in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah.”
Since both religious clergy and judiciary in the ultraconservative Gulf kingdom is male-dominated, deciding whether or not a woman has a “legal basis” for her request in accordance with Islamic Shariah can be challenging for women.
The new directive comes at a time when human rights advocates across the globe are criticizing Saudi Arabia’s election to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and rightfully so. After all, the oil-rich Arab country is a place where women, in this day and age, are still banned from activities like driving or traveling without a male blood relative or husband and are forced to cover completely from head-to-toe in public.
In fact, Saudi Arabia’s ironic election to the U.N. women’s rights body came the same month when Dina Ali Lasloom, a Saudi woman who was trying to escape her country’s guardianship laws by seeking asylum in Australia, was detained at a Philippines airport. Saudi officials reportedly beat up the woman, before gagging her, wrapping her in a sheet like a mummy and then sending her back to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
So, while King Salman’s order, according to Human Rights Commission President Bandar bin Mohammed Al-Aiban reflects his “care of his people and embodies his concern to simplify procedures for women,” it appears more like a hasty, cosmetic change to calm critics down.
Meanwhile, the larger problem of patriarchy trampling on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia remains unaddressed.