A verse from the Qur'an says:
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.”
In Saudi Arabia this forms the basis for a system where all women must be assigned a male guardian – usually their father or husband, but sometimes a brother or son.
Without permission from their guardian, adult women are unable to travel or marry. They may not be able to work or obtain medical treatment and may have difficulty carrying out various transactions, such as renting property or making legal claims.
What a woman is allowed to do depends largely on the goodwill of her male guardian – which is not always forthcoming. There are cases where men extort money from female dependents in exchange for giving consent to work or travel.
A report published today by Human Rights Watch looks in detail at the effects of the guardianship system. If Saudi Arabia is serious about combating discrimination against women and wants its Vision 2030 development plan to succeed, HRW argues, the guardianship system will have to be abolished.
The report acknowledges that the Saudi government has taken some modest steps over the last 10 years to ease the restrictions on women:
"Notable examples include allowing women to participate in the country’s limited political space, actively encouraging women to enter the labour market, and taking steps to better respond to domestic violence."
But it adds:
"While the reforms are a step in the right direction, they remain partial and incomplete. The male guardianship system remains largely in place, hindering and in some cases nullifying the efficacy of these reforms."
For example, there is no law saying that women need permission from their guardian in order to work, but employers can still insist on permission and are not penalised if they do so.
Government officials often say the main barrier to reform is not the state but the conservative nature of Saudi society and the influence of reactionary religious figures. The report notes:
The General Presidency for Scholarly Research and ‘Ifta, the official institution entrusted with issuing Islamic legal opinions, has also consistently limited women’s ability to make independent decisions in its fatwas.
The General Presidency’s website lists dozens of fatwas on women, many of which reinforce men’s authority over women and restrict their ability to move, work, and study. For example, the General Presidency stated that women cannot serve in leadership positions over men because of their "deficient reasoning and rationality, in addition to their passion that prevails over their thinking".
In another ruling, it stated, "A woman should not leave her house, except with her husband’s permission." If he does, "she should go out unadorned so that she does not attract men’s attention.… Her husband can prevent her from going out if she insists on displaying her beauty."
Even so, there is more that the government could be doing. For instance, if a woman is unhappy with her male guardian it is extremely difficult to have someone else appointed in his place unless the woman can show that she has been beaten or prove that her guardian is incapable (e.g. through old age).
As with most reform issues in Saudi Arabia, however, the underlying problem is the royal family's reluctance to confront the religious establishment in any serious way. Unless it does so, change is likely to remain painfully slow. Going into battle with the clerics would be a dangerous move, however, because the royal family's main claim to legitimacy is its religious credentials.