Saudi women: Between the passport and sports

The situation of Saudi women today is better. However, there is more that can be improved

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan has been appointed to head a new department for women under the kingdom’s general authority for sports, which has always been exclusive to men. This is a positive step that brings optimism in terms of correcting women’s situation in the country, which is the most difficult and complicated affair on all popular and official levels.

Women’s situation has been a problem since the state was established around a century ago. Old traditions still dominate at home, on the street, at school and in the workplace. For example, women only recently attained the right to an ID card. Before that, they were included in the father’s or husband’s card. Three years ago, IDs became a must for Saudi women completing 15 years of age - some objected, but in the end it all became normal.

More recently, Saudi divorcees and widows got greater legal powers as they can be issued family IDs to register children at schools and authorize medical procedures. Healthcare institutions that refuse to treat women if they do not have their guardian’s consent are now punished.

In the past three years, many regulations have been developed and corrected. Women became allowed to perform jobs that they were previously prohibited from performing, such as working as a lawyer in courts.

Following a long controversy and objections, women’s wishes finally came true as they were given the right to plead in courts in different cases, not just those about women. In three years, the number of female lawyers reached around 100, and there are more than 600 qualified females training as lawyers.

Women became allowed to participate in municipal elections by either running for a municipal seat or voting. It was a huge occasion, as more than 100,000 Saudi women voted. Unfortunately, female winners have been deprived of their rights as they were isolated from the councils. This is due to an internal decision, and is not implemented in other state councils.

Executing decisions may by authoritarian and not based on regulations. For example, some oblige females applying for a Masters or PhD to attain their guardian’s approval. Such requirements are imposed by people who implement their own rules, which they must be held accountable for.

Since enabling women to attain their own IDs, a series of discriminatory measures against them has been cancelled, such as ending the condition imposed on hotels to not allow females to occupy a hotel room unless they have a male’s approval.

An issue that continues to stir controversy is women’s right to attain a passport - from what I understand, it is not true that a guardian’s approval is needed. However, she must attain her guardian’s approval when she travels.

I asked a female legislator why the Shura Council or government are not urged to amend this decision, especially since correcting it harmonizes with the previous series of measures. She said many controversial cases are not related to complicated laws and rules, but to how regulations are executed, and this can be amended by the relevant authority.

Outdated thinking

These issues show us the old philosophy of the government’s role. This philosophy no longer suits modern society. It is based on the idea that the state performs the role of the father and husband alongside household members, and acts on behalf of an employer toward his employees and protects the former’s rights. There are many cases in courts that show husbands’ and fathers’ abuse against their dependents.

The situation of Saudi women today is better. However, there is more that can be improved, such as their right to drive cars and the expansion of employment opportunities

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

We have a long way to go in correcting laws and regulations in favor of women. It is even longer in terms of refining social traditions that sometimes deny women their legal rights. Society is still characterized by contradictions, as it encourages women’s education yet prevents them from working.

The number of female students in public education and universities is very high, more than the number of males. According to the global gender-gap report by the International Economic Forum in 2015, Saudi Arabia’s ranking improved a lot in terms of providing women with educational opportunities (82 out of 145 countries). However, it ranked 138 in terms of providing women with economic opportunities such as employment.

The situation of Saudi women today is better in terms of their right to inheritance, own land, have abortions for medical reasons, divorce and maternity leave, as well as preventing female circumcision, criminalizing physical attacks and specifying a minimum age for marriage. However, there is more that can be improved, such as their right to drive cars and the expansion of employment opportunities.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 4, 2016.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.

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