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Saudi Arabia attracted international acclaim last year when it eliminated the ban on women driving a car.
However, the Saudis are still subject to many restrictions. The most striking is the male guardianship system , which gives its parents, siblings, husbands or children the authority to make important decisions in their lives.
This system came under the spotlight again this month when a young Saudi woman fleeing her family barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, saying she feared she would end up in prison if she returned to her country .
In Saudi Arabia, a woman needs the permission of a male relative to apply for a passport, travel abroad, study abroad with a government grant, get married, get out of jail and even leave a shelter for victims of abuse.
“This is something that affects every Saudi woman and girl, from birth until she dies, basically, they are treated as minors, ” Egyptian and US journalist Mona Eltahawy told the BBC.
Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000 and ensures that gender equality is guaranteed in accordance with the provisions of sharia or Islamic law.
The conservative kingdom also withdrew prohibitions such as women and girls could not play sports in public schools or could not attend stadiums to watch football matches.
However, experts from the United Nations (UN) were concerned in February 2018 for the lack in the country of a specific law that prohibits discrimination against women and a legal definition of what this is.
Derived from sharia
According to experts, the male guardianship system was “the main obstacle to the participation of women in society and the economy”.
This derives from the interpretation traditionally made in Saudi Arabia of a Koranic verse that says “men are the protectors and providers of women, because Allah has made one of them overcome (in force) the other and because they keep them with your own means. “
The government of King Salmán bin Abdulaziz has made in recent years reforms promoted by the crown prince , Mohammed bin Salmán, (which is in the public spotlight after being indicated by US senators as suspect of having given the order to assassinate the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something he denies).
Among these changes, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), there is an order from the king to government agencies not to deny services to women just because they do not have the permission of a man, unless there are regulations that require it. He also ordered them to make a list of all the activities that required this male consent.
In September 2017, the king announced that, for the first time, women could drive vehicles , a news that was very well received. Then, in May 2018, a few weeks before this came into force, the authorities of that country began to persecute activists for women’s rights.
A dozen women, including Badawi, were arrested. There were also arrested men. Most were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign parties,” a charge that carries long prison terms.
Despite the changes, the male guardianship system has not been eliminated, making it difficult for women to carry out activities such as renting an apartment and, sometimes, even working or accessing health services.
Saudis who defy these bans can end up in prison , as happened to activist Samar Badawi. In 2008, she ran away from home and went to a shelter as a supposed victim of physical aggression by her father.
Badawi began a legal process to remove his guardianship from his father, who denounced her for “disobedience . ” In 2010, a judge ordered his arrest and had to spend seven months in jail until the activists managed to draw attention to his case and the authorities withdrew the charge.
Even those who try to take refuge abroad can not avoid jail .
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom was forced to return with her family in Saudi Arabia when she was making a stopover in the Philippines to travel to Australia. She claimed to be escaping a forced marriage.
HRW claims to have received reports that Lasloom had been confined to a shelter for a season. But it is not clear if it was later returned to his family.