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Saudi Arabia’s new laws for women – a small step but still not enough

Earlier this week it was announced that the Saudi Arabian government passed new laws that afford women long overdue rights. Taking effect at the end of August, the new laws permit women over the age of twenty-one to apply for a passport and travel freely without male guardianship and permission. As well as this were changes to family laws — women can now register a marriage, divorce, or child’s birth, and be issued other legal documents, which before could only be obtained with male approval.

This move has been widely celebrated, as in most arenas of a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia, male guardianship is needed (also known as a ‘mehram’, most likely her husband, father or male relative).

Despite these positive steps, the progression of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia means little when the same women who fought for them are still behind bars.

Like many of the things he has done since taking control of the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman strives to create a global image of a progressive and modern leader. This however, has so far been a fairly transparent cover for masking human rights violations and abuses of power.

When he came to power in 2017 he vowed to ‘end corruption’ in the Saudi government and proceeded to detain Saudi government officials, businessmen, elites and even fellow royals, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of Saudi’s richest men. This bid to flush out corruption was in fact a move to accelerate Prince Salman’s own power, removing his rivals or anyone who could potentially cause him problems when his father and current ruler passes away or abdicates the throne.

Similarly when it comes to women’s rights, Prince Salman’s goal is to appear refreshing and progressive by breaking down some of the restrictions placed on women’s lives, when ultimately he is still keeping control of women activists and campaigners who challenge him.

In 2017, Prince Salman announced the historic lift of the female driving ban, the last of its kind in the world. Just a month before the ban was lifted in 2018, over a dozen women’s rights activists were detained, many of whom are still imprisoned, on trial or facing travel bans. Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada are prominent activists who remain behind bars for their human rights work, facing charges related to their “promotion of women’s rights” and “calls to end the male guardianship system”.

Loujain al-Hathloul was held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from the neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International reports that there are at least 14 other individuals who support women’s rights campaigning, including male relatives of those who are involved, who have been detained and held arbitrarily without charge since April 2019.

It has also been reported that many of these women have faced torture, sexual abuse or other ill-treatment during their detention. This highlights the insincerity of the changes Prince Salman has made — although they are significant advances for women, it seems he controls the degree of change to suit his own interests, whilst continuing to commit human rights violations against women’s rights defenders.

Further examples bolster this point, such as the announcement that rapper Nicki Minaj was due to perform at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah World Fest. Minaj has since pulled out of the concert to show support for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and freedom of expression. A clearly controversial decision, having Minaj as a headliner, who is known for her hyper-sexualised and provocative image, is another attempt to generate positive publicity of the kingdom, breaking the barriers on entertainment, meanwhile women are subject to police harassment if they are perceived to be showing too much skin (even whilst wearing an abaya, the religious dress) or wearing too much make-up. This is neither a criticism of Minaj’s style, nor of women who choose to wear religious dress, but an illustration of the double standards in this scenario.

Gender segregation is also still enforced in the majority of public spaces that I experienced first hand when I visited the country in 2012. The few times that I entered a restaurant or coffee shop, I was made to enter through a separate entrance and stand in a separate queue. By no surprise, the men’s queue was served first whilst the female queue was ignored for long periods of time. Eventually, my female family members and I realised it was easier to send the male members of the family to get food for us. What might seem a menial example is telling of the experience and general treatment of women in Saudi Arabia — restricted, controlled and nowhere near equal to men.

If the Saudi government was truly committed to its so-called liberalisation effort, it would remove these barriers placed on the everyday lives of women, and free those who have been campaigning for these rights for decades.

Instead, the government is proving that women will be penalised and punished for such campaigning, and should accept their rights only when given by the Prince. Whilst small changes can be celebrated, it must be remembered that these changes have come at a price, one that the Saudi government seems determined to keep hidden.

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