The sweeping advances for Saudi women announced by Saudi Arabia will start to dismantle the country’s discriminatory male guardianship system, Human Rights Watch said Friday. The changes were announced while many of the women activists who championed these reforms remain on trial or in detention in retaliation for their rights advocacy.
The legal changes, adopted by a Council of Ministers decision and endorsed by royal decree M.134, will allow Saudi women to obtain passports without the approval of a male relative, register births of their children, and benefit from new protections against employment discrimination.
Saudi official sources have announced that women over 21 will no longer require male guardian permission to travel abroad, but the Council of Ministers decision makes no reference to women’s freedom to travel.
“Saudi Arabia’s long overdue legal reforms should provide Saudi women a much greater degree of control over their lives,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But this is a bittersweet victory as courageous Saudi women who pushed for these changes remain behind bars or face unfair trials.”
The Council of Ministers decision on July 31, 2019, published in the official gazette on August 1, amend the Travel Documents Law, the Civil Status Law, and the Labor Law. The Wall Street Journal reported that senior Saudi officials said the changes would take effect by late October.
Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communications and local media outlets reported that the changes will also allow women to leave the country without permission from a male guardian, but the Council of Ministers decision made no mention of changes to that requirement. Saudi authorities should immediately clarify whether Saudi women can leave the country without permission and ensure that all regulations, procedures, and online platforms will now allow it. As of August 2, the mobile application “Absher” still allowed men to permit or decline travel for female dependents.
The changes to the Travel Documents Law allow “anyone holding Saudi nationality” to obtain a Saudi passport. The regulations also eliminated a provision allowing men to include their wives and unmarried daughters on their passports. These reforms mean that women will now need to obtain an individual passport to travel abroad but will not need a male guardian to apply and obtain it for them. A fact sheet provided by the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC states that the changes to the Travel Documents Law will take effect in late August.
The reforms included important advances for women on civil status issues, Human Rights Watch said. The government removed language requiring women to live with their husband. In addition, a woman can now register her children’s births with the civil status office, which was previously restricted to fathers or paternal relatives. Women will also be permitted to notify the civil status office of a death, marriage, or divorce, and to obtain family records. The changes allow women, along with their husbands, to be considered a “head of household” with respect to their children, which should improve Saudi women’s ability to conduct government business on their children’s behalf.
Finally, changes to the Labor Law clarify that a “worker” can be female as well as male. Employers will be prohibited from dismissing or threatening women with dismissal during pregnancy or maternity leave or if they have an illness resulting from pregnancy or childbirth. Maternity leave remains capped at 180 days.
The changes also include new protections against discrimination in employment: “citizens are equal with respect to the right to work without any discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, age, or any other form of discrimination.” This major advance should make it illegal for private employers to demand that potential female employees obtain the approval of their male guardian to work. The Saudi embassy fact sheet stated that the new provision would entitle women to equal pay with men.
The July 31 decision will require many changes to sub-regulations for them to have practical effect, Human Rights Watch said. Others, such as the anti-discrimination language in the amended Labor Law, will require creation of a system to vigorously monitor workplace discrimination and take action against violators.
The new amendments are the most sweeping reforms of women’s rights that Saudi Arabia has made and the first real break into the country’s male guardianship system, which has allowed men significant control over Saudi women’s lives from birth until death. Human Rights Watch has documented that under this system, every Saudi woman has been required to have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but even a brother or son, who is empowered to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. While the new changes are important, Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married or leave prison or a shelter.
Recent advances in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been accompanied by an intensified crackdown on dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics. In 2018, this repression extended to the country’s leading women’s rights activists who have advocated ending the male guardianship system. On May 15, 2018, just weeks before the ban on women driving was lifted on June 24, Saudi authorities began arresting prominent women’s rights activists and accused several of grave crimes such as treason. Human rights organizations began reporting in November accusations that Saudi interrogators tortured at least four of the women, including with electric shocks and whippings, and had sexually harassed and assaulted them.
Saudi Arabia opened trials of the women in March, charging them with “offenses” mostly related to peaceful human rights work, including promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the male guardianship system. While many of the women have been released pending the outcome of their trials, at least five remain in detention, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah.
“The Saudi authorities should immediately release and drop all charges against women rights activists who called for the very reforms the government has now adopted,” Begum said. “This should be the beginning of the end of the notorious male guardianship system and the authorities should promptly dismantle the rest of it.”