Bel Trew, Cairo, Catherine Philp, London
Saudi Arabian women have urged the Kingdom to abandon its guardianship law that gives men sweeping powers over their female relatives, after the country took the historic step of dropping a ban on women driving.
Under the “mahram” system, women in Saudi Arabia must seek permission from a male relative to perform basic public tasks such as travelling or opening a bank account. Until minor reforms were announced in May, male guardians even had to approve women’s requests to visit the doctor.
Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to bar women from driving until King Salman ordered the government to issue women driving licences yesterday. The government said the historic measures would be rolled out by June 2018.
Women heralded the decision as a victory but called for further reforms, resurrecting the hashtag “I am my own guardian”. Many expressed fears that women would have to secure permission from their male relatives to apply for a licence.
“It is a victory but we hope it will be one of many decisions to come that give women more rights on the path of becoming, one day, equal to men,” said Rasha Hafza, a Saudi rights activist who was one of the first women to successfully stand in an election last year.
She said she hoped the guardianship system would be the next hurdle removed and that the end of the driving ban was a sign of progress within Saudi society. “It reflects a change in the culture of Saudi Arabia and the mentality of the people,” she added.
Manal al-Sharif, a rights activist in exile in Australia, who had started the women’s campaign to drive in 2011, also called for the end of the guardian system, and expressed fears about how the driving ban would be lifted. She has been jailed multiple times for driving alongside several other fellow female activists.
“Women’s rights activists will still continue to observe how this law is implemented and monitored and will continue campaigning to abolish the male guardianship imposed on them,” she said on Tuesday. “ We ask for nothing short of full equality for women.”
Another activist, still in Saudi Arabia, who was previously jailed for taking part in driving protests, said the authorities had warned her not to speak to the media or publicly celebrate the lifting of the ban.
Photo: HASAN JAMALI/AP