Several reforms to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have been enacted in the past few months. Notably, the ban on women’s driving was lifted in September 2017. Male guardianship laws were relaxed to allow women access to certain services without the presence or permission of a male guardian, provided that such access does not contravene shari’ah law. Physical education is now allowed for girls in public schools. Yesterday, women entered stadiums for the first time to watch football matches in the kingdom.
Of course, no one will contest that these reforms represent positive steps in the right direction – milestones, even. I, for one, celebrate every one of them as a victory. A Financial Times article by Ahmed Al Omran quotes Lina Al-Maeena, a member of the Shura Council, as saying, “It’s really going to be a paradigm shift for Saudi Arabia and how men perceive women as equals, whether in the workforce or the street or the stadium.”
But who actually benefits from these reforms?
Male guardianship laws officially and unofficially, directly and indirectly, restrict women’s access to employment, government services, protection from abuse, and the basic human freedom of exercising free will in all domains of life.
With these laws in place, the women who in theory could drive, can still be prevented from driving. The women who in theory could attend a football game, can still be prevented from attending a football game. Because control, ultimately, still falls to a male guardian in allowing a woman to access these new freedoms. Because the social landscape that forms the backdrop to these laws still infantalises and dehumanises women.
Privileged women from cosmopolitan families – and I am one of those women – with patriarchs who embrace the new reforms will benefit from them. The rest will continue to suffer the effects of systematic gender discrimination, of a legal system that refuses to acknowledge their full humanity, and of the injustices made possible by that system.
I get criticism for my stance on the male guardianship system and the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia from a handful of Saudi women who insist that things are getting better. “I disagree with what you say about Saudi Arabia because I had a positive experience there.” “It’s getting better, I promise.”
I know the Riyadh I write about is the Riyadh of my childhood, not the Riyadh of today. I know it’s possible to have positive experiences in Saudi Arabia, and I know it’s getting better.
But better for whom? Better for the women for whom it has always been better?