On Oct. 9, Saudi Arabia announced that women will now be allowed to serve in the Saudi armed forces. This reform is the latest measure aimed at increasing rights for women in the kingdom. In the past year, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, has introduced numerous reforms easing restrictions on women’s rights. In June 2018, MBS lifted the ban on women driving and in August 2019, women were granted the ability to travel without consent from a male guardian. Other reforms have included the right to register births, marriages, and divorces.

The measures are part of a larger set of social and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia designed to diversify the economy and open up the country to tourism. Beginning in 2015, the prince imposed restrictions on the religious police and opened access to movie theatres and music concerts. This is a far departure from previous policies that had forged and maintained Saudi Arabia’s notorious image of conservativism and radical interpretation of Islam. The longstanding male guardianship system, composed of a structure of laws, regulations and social customs, is just one such element that upholds this portrayal. The system places women under the control of their male guardian, be it their father, husband or even their son. Women are deemed legal minors and cannot perform many activities, such as getting a job or access to healthcare, without the permission of their male guardian. There even exists an app, Absher, that enables men to more easily approve a woman’s actions, such as request for a passport. 

However, MBS is attempting to change this conservative perception of the kingdom through dismantling the guardianship system and granting women more rights. Thus far, it has been largely successful as foreign governments and international organisations, as well as female Saudi activists, have hailed the kingdom for its reforms. Saudi influencer Muna Abu Sulayman went as far as to tweet: “A generation growing up completely free and equal to their brothers.

Caution Remains

However, amidst this praise, many remain cautious about the new reforms; Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, contends that “there is still a long way to go to make sure women are not second-class citizens.” Women still require permission from their male guardian to marry, live on their own and leave prison if detained. They can still not pass on their citizenship to their children nor give consent for their children to marry. 

There remains a lack of enforcement mechanisms for those that disregard the new laws; many conservative households can merely disregard the laws and maintain control over women. Through filing claims of disobedience and absence from the home, men ensure that women are punished for their defiance, often through a prison sentence. As a result, it is difficult for victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse to seek help as their guardian can file such a complaint. 

This occurred in 2008 when human rights activist Samar Badawi attempted to flee her home as a result of domestic abuse and seek protection; her guardian was able to charge her with disobedience, which led to her imprisonment for seven months until the charges were dropped. 

Evidence of the existing inequality is highlighted by the number of women attempting to flee the country. In 2018, two Saudi sisters fled to Hong Kong and after hiding for six months, they have been granted asylum in an unknown third country. In January 2019, Rahaf Mohammed fled the country due to the alleged abuse from her family, feeling she had “nothing to lose.” After international appeals for help, she was granted asylum in Canada. The same year, two Saudi sisters fled to Georgia. Whilst these women were successful, there are many who are not, who are forced back into the country, never to be heard from again.

There is still a long way to go until women are given equal rights to men. Loopholes still remain in the system, which will allow oppression of women to continue with impunity.

Ulterior Motives?

Therefore, questions arise how far these reforms have in fact brought real change to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Alongside the reforms, Saudi Arabia continues to imprison its women’s rights activists. Just prior to the ban on women driving, numerous female rights activists who were part of the campaign to allow women to drive were arrested on the charge of contact with foreign human rights organisations. First placed in the terrorism court, they were later moved to the criminal court and some temporarily released during their trial that began in March 2019. Yet, to this day, these women remain without access to a lawyer. During their time in prison, the women were placed in solitary confinement, tortured, and sexually assaulted, whilst enduring smear campaigns and character assassinations. Saudi women’s rights activist Manal Al-Sharif claims that the brutal treatment of these women “shows that this government is not supportive of women’s rights or reforms.” Thus, the reforms remain, according to Rothna Begum,  a “bittersweet victory for the women’s rights activists.”

Accordingly, MBS’s intentions have been called into question, pointing to his ambition to become an important player on the international stage. Saudi Arabia’s recent human rights abuses brought to light by the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen, however, present a dent in this plan as the international community has condemned such actions and placed pressure on the kingdom to abide by human rights laws. The UN Human Rights Council rebuked Saudi’s involvement in the murder of Khashoggi, whilst urging it to release its imprisoned female activists. Saudia Arabia has merely denied charges of any wrongdoing rather than succumb to pressures, given the low probability that these actors would actually cease relations with the country as a result of their dependence on Saudi oil reserves. Instead, according to human rights activists, MBS continues to introduce reforms as a method to draw attention away from the regime’s human rights abuses and placate the international community. The prince has, with relative success, managed to do just this as most outside powers were quick to celebrate the reforms.

Therefore, the motives behind the reforms remains questionable; the arrest of female activists, in particular, implies that the prince’s motives are not as pure as they first appear to be. Regardless, the reforms are a cause of celebration. They have promoted equality between men and women, granting women more freedoms within the kingdom. However, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go in dismantling systemic oppression against women.