Business, Finance & Economics

With Trump set to visit, Saudi Arabia reconsiders rules on women traveling alone

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

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Saudi women journalists raise their hands at a press conference for former US Secretary of State John Kerry. Women are slowly gaining rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, although it's still the most restrictive in the world for women.

Credit:

Reuters

As a man, Donald Trump won’t need a male guardian to accompany him around Saudi Arabia on his first international trip, to Riyadh, next week — although he'll of course have US Secret Service agents everywhere he goes.

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It’s a different story for Saudi women, who have long been bound by repressive “guardianship laws” that require they have permission from a man — a father, uncle, brother or husband, or even a young son — for basic day-to-day activities such as going to the doctor, renting an apartment or filing a legal claim.  

But might that be changing?

Earlier this week, Saudi King Salman announced his government would review rules around guardianship, and may seek to loosen them. His government has 3 months to make their recommendations.

The review comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is very publicly trying to reshape and liberalize its economy, in response to a damaging slump in oil prices. Increasing women’s participation in the formal workforce beyond 13 percent, its current level, would be a huge economic engine.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most gender-segregated places, according to the World Bank — and even if these changes are implemented, women would still face serious restrictions. They would still be required to wear a full veil and receive permission from a man to travel abroad, get a passport or get married. Women can’t confer citizenship to their children, or be heads of households.

Beyond the laws, the reality for Saudi women is a culture in which some men feel emboldened to boss women around — even in Starbucks. After a wall intended to separate men from women inside the store fell down last year, employees banned women from entering and told them to use the drive-through.

Many observers are deeply skeptical of the timing of King Salman's announcement, just before Trump's visit. 

“The Saudi government says what the international community wants to hear at the moment of a UN review or a summit with the US president,” says Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch. “Then the world stops watching, and the review rarely goes anywhere.”

The king's recent announcement follows years of focused activism by Saudi women campaigning to illustrate human rights abuses resulting from guardianship laws. Last year, 15,000 Saudi women signed a petition requesting that King Salman abolish the guardianship system completely. Hashtags have gone viral, including #TogetherEndGuardianship and #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen

Human Rights Watch has publicly supported several women imprisoned for traveling without a male guardian, even when they were escaping abusive situations. Mariam al-Oteibi, 29, was jailed by police for fleeing an abusive family. Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, was too.

Last month, there was a minor uproar when Saudi Arabia was elected to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which is dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Human Rights Watch called the appointment “an affront” to the mission of UN Women. 

One observer describes changes for women as happening, but at a "glacial" pace.  Domestic violence was recognized as a crime in 2013.  In 2015, women were allowed to run in local elections.

Informally, access to the internet is being taken advantage of by entreprenuerial Saudi young women. Saudi women-run businesses on Instagram, for example, have taken off, says Maisam Al-Ahmed, a Saudi student in the US, who reported on cupcake-making businesses that have been thriving in the informal economy.  

Individually, women have been breaking out and making gains. In 2012, Saudi Arabia sent two women to the Olympics. It sent four in 2016.

Raha Moharrak is one such athlete. She became the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest. Now she’s promoting women’s involvement in sports.  

“I’m really trying to change this mentality that sports is just for boys, sports is just football and medals and winning,” Moharrak, 31, told CNNMoney in an interview. “It’s not that. Which parent would not want their child to grow up healthy?”

But often those changes are symbolic, as I pointed out at the time: In the elections, for example, which were widely touted in international media as a sea change for women, women ended up with only 20 seats, about 1 percent of the total.   

Twitter was also tinged with cynicsm. 

As always, there's been a conservative backlash, with some women defending guardianship. In 2010, women launched a social media campaign in defense of the status quo: “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me.” It was in response to a public case in which a Saudi woman tried to cross into Bahrain with only a passport and no male guardian.  

No one expects Trump to talk about women's rights while visiting Saudi Arabia. But we'll keep an eye on whether the government moves ahead with these changes.

Christina Asquith is director of Across Women's Lives at PRI's The World, and founder of The Fuller Project for International Reporting, which reports on issues impacting women around the world.