Women in Saudi Arabia got the right to drive, but they still can’t do these things
Reem Baeshen/AFP/Getty Images(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — The announcement that Saudi Arabia will finally allow women to drive has been hailed as a watershed moment for gender equality, but the kingdom still has many laws in place that restrict the rights of women, activists say.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that forbids women from getting behind the wheel, announced that women will be allowed to obtain drivers’ licenses for the first time in June 2018.
In the meantime, a newly formed committee will develop a plan on how to implement the royal decree in accordance with religious and regulatory standards, presenting its recommendations within 30 days.
“This is a historic big day in our kingdom,” Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, said during a press conference Tuesday at the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Bin Salman confirmed that women will be allowed to apply for a license, take driving lessons and drive any vehicle without needing legal permission from their male guardians. The choice to do so will be solely up to women, bin Salman said he acknowledged there “might be social issues.”
Reacting to the news, U.S. Department of State Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters at a press briefing, “It’s a great step in the right direction for that country.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote on his official Twitter, “I welcome Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift the ban on women drivers. An important step in the right direction.”
But Saudi Arabia’s longstanding ban on women drivers is just one of a number of rules that restrict nearly every aspect of daily life for the ultra-conservative nation’s female population. While the new decree marks a breakthrough, Saudi women are still not in the driver’s seat when it comes to making many key decisions in their own lives, largely because of the country’s male guardianship system, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
Activists say the kingdom’s guardianship policies effectively render adult women legal minors because they must obtain a male guardian’s consent for even the most mundane activities. A woman’s father, husband, brother or son constitute a guardian.
“We need to pause and congratulate all of the courageous women activists who have been pushing for this outcome for decades,” Ahmed Benchemsi, advocacy and communications director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told ABC News. “However, this should be put in perspective with other violations that do persist.”
Here are 13 things — among others — women in Saudi Arabia cannot do freely due to the country’s strict laws and guardianship policies.
Women cannot wed without the consent of their male guardians, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
A woman also needs a male guardian’s permission to divorce. And until the divorce is finalized, a woman’s husband remains her legal guardian throughout the process, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Moreover, men may petition the courts to forcibly divorce a female relative from her husband if they deem the marriage “unfit,” the report found.
Have custody of children
Women cannot retain custody of their children in a divorce after the kids reach the age of 7 for boys and 9 for girls, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Get a passport
Women cannot obtain passports or identification cards without permission of a male guardian, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Women are not allowed to travel abroad without male permission, and they are often not permitted to leave home alone, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Women who are convicted of a crime and serve a sentence behind bars cannot leave prison without the permission of a male guardian, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
In some cases, the guardian refuses.
“There is this feeling that she brought shame upon her family and the honor of her family has been damaged, and therefore the guardian won’t come and free her,” Benchemsi told ABC News.
Open a bank account
Women need the permission of a male guardian to open their own bank account, Benchemsi said. They can’t open bank accounts for their children without written consent from the child’s father, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Get a job
There are few careers in Saudi Arabia that women are allowed to pursue without male consent, according to the Human Rights Watch report, and some companies don’t even want to hire women.
Dress how they want
Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law, in which all women must cover their bodies and hair when appearing in public. A headscarf and an abaya — a full-length, loose-fitting robe — must be worn, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. State Department.
Interact freely with men
Women must limit conversations and physical closeness with men who are not family members. They are also segregated from the opposite sex in public spaces such as banks, offices, restaurants and universities, which have a separately designated family section and a section reserved for men, according to the U.S. State Department.
Receive equal inheritance
Under Saudi Arabia’s Sharia inheritance laws, daughters only receive half of what their brothers are entitled to, according to the U.S. State Department.
Get a fair trial
The testimony of a man in Saudi Arabia’s courts equals that of two women, according to the U.S. State Department. In other words, a woman’s statement is only worth half of a man’s.
Seek medical treatment
While the State Department notes that Saudi women can make their own determinations regarding hospital care, the Human Rights Watch report found that a guardian’s permission is required for certain medical treatments, including elective surgery and even lifesaving procedures.
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