The credit for the latest cache of social reforms in theocratic Saudi Arabia must go to the women who relentlessly fought for them, and not to a fractured monarchy. Chiefly, women will be allowed to travel without permission and no less crucially without a male guardian, and to have more control over matters familial.
Critically, this will entail registering a marriage, divorce or a child’s birth, and being issued official family documents. It is fervently to be hoped that all this and more ~ primarily the changes in the guardian system ~ will fructify in a critical transformation of societal mores in the desert kingdom.
Logically, these reforms ought to have been introduced long ago…with women being allowed to drive and then being inducted into the Shura (governing council), albeit with a curtain to separate the genders. For all that, women’s rights remain tightly constricted and many of the activists who fought for them have on occasion been through a rough patch under an oppressive regime.
Women will still need permission from a male relative to marry or divorce. Other laws still hold women back. More than reforms, the oppressive system that has targeted women for ages needs to be abolished.
But so dramatic a transformation cannot be expected anytime soon. The core issue must be that the authoritarain regime violates human rights and the day when women become equal to men is still a long way away. Of course, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pledged to medernise the kingdom.
Notably, his “Vision 2030” plan calls for an increase in women’s participation in the workplace, from 22 per cent to 30 per cent. The new laws also bar discrimination in the workplace. On closer reflection, the relatively moderate Crown Prince deserves no gratitude for these changes. The credit goes to the Saudi women who are still suffering for their battle. Everything possible should be done to free them.
No less important than reforms is the imperative to reorient the goalposts of the palace, that has seemingly been engaged in a war without end in Yemen, has been under a cloud in the international perspective over the hideous murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and is still holding around a dozen doughty female campaigners, not to forget the travesty of human rights while dealing with offenders of the law.
Other activists have been banned from travel, or are now in exile. The government in Riyadh was apparently keen to end the embarrassment of Saudi women pleading for asylum after fleeing abroad, saying they had no other way to escape abuse. To an extent, the liberal winds are blowing across the desert sands; but only very partially. Ergo, the package of reforms, announced last Friday, can be greeted with a modified ‘yes’. Perhaps the time for jubilation is not yet. Much has been done; much also alas has not.