Saudi Arabia’s traditional, patriarchal system of government requires male guardianship over women.

The male legal guardianship system requires that every female have a male legal guardian. This guardian is endowed with certain legal rights over the woman. For example, women must have permission from their male legal guardian in order to travel domestically or internationally for any purpose, including their education. Women are banned from driving and, although it is not directly illegal, women are banned from obtaining a driver’s license. Legal male guardians have the right to decide where women work, travel; attend school, as well as important decisions concerning their healthcare.

In many situations male legal guardianship is used to protect and serve Saudi women, but it also makes it easier to control and abuse women. Saudi women’s rights have been disproportionately affected by the views of the Wahhabi religious establishment. There are many human rights issues that arise out of dependency requirement on a male guardian, most pointedly a woman’s right to freedom from violence. It is lawful to for male guardians to beat women in certain circumstances, making it difficult to prosecute guardians for violence.

A woman may escape from her guardian but if she has nowhere to go and has no rights until that male legal guardianship is transferred to another male, she very well may end up in jail waiting for her abuser to come and get her. All of the power is in the abuser’s hands until divorce proceedings are finalized. And that situation only captures the dynamic between husband and wife, notwithstanding other familial relationships which may be even more difficult to sever.

In Saudi Arabia, women without legal male guardians are vulnerable to a plethora of human rights abuses because they are not considered equal to men in society. For example, the right to education, the right to work, and fundamental equality between men and women are implicated. The system inherently discriminates against women, refusing to recognize their individual autonomy as human beings as citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on the government to abolish the male guardianship system, which the government agreed to do in 2009 and again in 2013 after its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The reform has been stunted and slow. Saudi women have been using social media to raise awareness about the government’s complicity concerning male legal guardianship.

This September, more than 14,000 Saudi women signed another petition demanding an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Twitter hashtags movements like the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen and a Twitter hashtag in Arabic that translates to “Saudi women want to abolish the guardianship system” that went viral after the Human Rights Watch released an article titled “Boxed In” in July of this year. Several videos and artwork calling for change have been created, such as  “I am My Own Guardian” bracelets. As many as 2,500 women sent telegrams to the Saudi King’s office in September 2016 supporting the campaign.

There have been limited reforms related to the political freedom of Saudi women. In 2013, then-King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, his highest advisory body. On December 12, 2015, women were granted the right to vote in municipal council elections, with women voting and running as candidates for the first time in the country’s history. However, women still struggle to register to vote due to male guardians’ preferences, and even in the monumental 2015 elections only ten percent of registered voters were women. Women campaigned for the right to vote for more than a decade and still fighting for adequate representation. These women are now requesting the male legal guardianship system be disbanded by the Saudi Arabian governmentas a another step towards autonomous, political freedom.

Saudi Arabia has more than an ethical responsibility to provide Saudi women with social and political freedoms; it also has a binding legal responsibility to do so. Saudi Arabia has not taken action on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, nor have they taken any action regarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Saudi Arabia ratified the UN Convention Against Torture in 1997, which stipulates that torture is intentional pain and suffering inflicted on a person, whether it is physical or mental. The male legal guardianship system is a religious tradition enforced by governmental provisions where a man may beat and control the women in his care, whether adults or minors. Violence against women is culturally acceptable and the government protection for women under the system is inadequate.

Saudi Arabia signed and ratified the UN Convention the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2000, which states in Article 1 that the elimination of discrimination against women means granting women equal rights to men in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil and every other field. Men are not required to have female or male legal guardians. Men do not have to request permission to travel, have an operation, attend an educational institution, or to marry. Therefore, there is an obvious difference between women’s and men’s rights in Saudi Arabia, which is inherently tied to the male legal guardianship system. As long as such a system is in place, equality for Saudi Arabian women is impossible. Article 5 of the Convention squarely places the responsibility for the cultural and familial changes required to eliminate discrimination against women on the government’s shoulders.

Saudi Arabia has committed to eliminating discrimination against women, which requires the disbandment of male legal guardianship. In April 2016, Saudi Arabia announced Vision 2030, another declaration focused on the incorporation of women into the workforce. This will not be truly actualized until women are given autonomous, equal legal rights to men. This will not be actualized while men and women still work in segregated environments.

There must continue to be international recognition of Saudi women’s rights and actions in order to pressure the Saudi Arabian government to end male legal guardianship. This will require that the Saudi Ministries of Interior, Labor and Social Development, Education, Health, and Justice, as well as King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud himself to publicly recognize that the male legal guardianship is no longer relevant. They must support opportunities for women and protection of women’s rights in light of this transition. Words of promise have no substance, until they become substantial action. The women of Saudi Arabia have waited long enough for their autonomy and freedom.

For an interview with Saudis affected by the male legal guardianship system, click here.