In Saudi Arabia, Men Still Drive Gender Policy

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The public relations blitz that has seen Saudi Arabia garner headlines this year culminates Sunday, when women take the wheel for the first time. But a draconian guardianship system remains.

The notorious system that places the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of the men in their lives -- the only people qualified to make decisions on their behalf -- continues to thrive in a kingdom carefully crafting a new image.

One year ago this month, Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed heir to the most powerful throne in the Middle East, setting in motion a record number of policy changes in a very, very short time.

But the reforms only chip at the surface of a system, and society, that many say has far to go.

- 'Hypocrisy' -

Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, in place for decades, stipulates that women need the permission of their closest male relative -- father, husband, brother, son -- to enroll in classes, renew their passports and leave either the country or jail.

Women may also be asked to provide the approval of their guardians to access healthcare.

Since the appointment of Prince Mohammed as crown prince last year, his father King Salman has signed off on decrees allowing women to watch sports live in stadiums, join the police force, apply online for their own business licenses and, of course, drive.

For many Saudi women, the right to drive a car with comprehensive insurance -- for those who can afford it -- is a dangerous distraction.

"How can you call this empowerment? This is hypocrisy. I can drive in my own country, but I cannot leave my own country unless my own son permits it?" one Saudi Arabian woman told AFP by phone on condition of anonymity.

"We are rich. We are educated. And yet we are not citizens under the same law. We are at the mercy of the father we are born to or the husband we are married off to."

Rights groups say the recent decrees are at best partial. At worst, they nullify but some of the larger issues still hanging.

"Allowing women to drive is a welcome step and it is a step towards freedom of movement for women," said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's director of Middle East campaigns.

"But it doesn't go far enough," Hadid told AFP. "If Saudi Arabia is serious about women's rights, they need to immediately abolish the guardianship system."

Another Saudi Arabian woman, who also requested she not be identified, says she is stuck in an unhappy marriage -- a marriage she described as emotionally abusive.

She says she cannot divorce. Her husband has her passport, and her parents live abroad.

"He says it every day: 'With one call, you'll never be able to leave Saudi Arabia and see your parents'."

- 'Culture of fear' -

Change has been slow in Saudi Arabia.

In 2000, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was ratified by Saudi Arabia, which thus became legally bound to end discrimination against women, including guardianship.

Seventeen years later, King Salman ordered government agencies to provide an official list of services which required women to secure guardian approval, a move rights groups said could mark a small step towards at least reviewing a system now deeply engrained in society.

While it is difficult to accurately gage public opinion on guardianship in Saudi Arabia, given what Hadid calls a pervasive "culture of fear and silencing of dissent," online protest movements, and real life arrests, may give some indication.

"It's important to remember that some of the very women who fought for this lifting of the ban, who campaigned peacefully, are behind bars," Hadid said.

"To lift the ban on the one hand, and arrest the very women who called for it, is hypocrisy."

Eight leading women's rights activists are behind bars in the kingdom, Amnesty said Wednesday, after a state crackdown this month.

While some activists have been released, among those still detained are high-profile campaigners against the driving ban, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef, whose names are associated with a 2016 petition to end the guardianship system.

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