Saudi women still can’t fly, marry, or leave jail without male consent

From next summer, females in the kingdom will be allowed to drive, but still face the Muslim’s world’s strictest ‘guardianship’ restrictions

Illustrative: In this Saturday, March 29, 2014 file photo, a woman drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. (AP/Hasan Jamali)
Illustrative: In this Saturday, March 29, 2014 file photo, a woman drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. (AP/Hasan Jamali)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive as of next summer, following a landmark royal decree, but they still face other hurdles in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

Here’s a look at some of those obstacles:


Under Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islamic law, a male guardianship system bars women from traveling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or even leaving prison without the consent of a male relative. This consent is also often demanded whenever a woman tries to do any number of things, including rent an apartment, buy a car, open a bank account or take a job.

The guardianship system requires a woman to get permission from a male family member for some of the most important and even mundane decisions of her life.

That could mean a woman being compelled to ask her younger brother for permission to have a medical procedure.

Women are generally not allowed to socialize with males outside their immediate families and can be thrown in prison for such an offence. At the end of their sentence, their male guardian may choose not to sign them out, leaving them in the care of the state. A hole was poked in that restriction last week, with women allowed to enter a sports stadium in Riyadh for Saudi National Day — in a family section, away from single men.

As a result of the guardianship laws, women are practically consigned to the status of minors for their entire lives. No other Muslim country enforces such strict guardianship measures.


There are no women in charge of government ministries in Saudi Arabia and there has been no woman ruler since the kingdom’s founding in 1932. Saudi women can, however, run and vote in local elections though ultimate power resides with the throne. The same day as the driving decree, Saudi Arabia also announced its first spokeswoman for its embassy in Washington, a high-profile role.


Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of gender segregation means women cannot attend sporting matches or sit in restaurants that do not have separate “family” sections. These rules also impact the ability of some employers to hire women where segregated office spaces are not available. Privately, the segregation rules often relegate women to the home unless a male relative, such as a father or brother, is available to escort them outside. Many conservative families also bar male cousins from seeing their female cousins past childhood age.


Women in Saudi Arabia must wear long, loose robes known as abayas in public. Most also cover their hair and face with a black veil, though exceptions are made for visiting dignitaries.

Saudi women sit in a stadium for the first time to attend an event in the capital Riyadh, commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom, September 23, 2017. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

In Riyadh, some Saudi women have started showing their faces, a change in the conservative capital where most show only their eyes — if that. Expatriate women, once obliged to veil, now get away with only an abaya.


If a woman divorces her husband, she cannot travel abroad with their children without the permission of the father, who remains the children’s legal guardian. Women cannot provide consent for their daughters to marry, or pass their nationality to their children. Women also are not afforded equal inheritance rights nor are they guaranteed custody of children after the age of seven or eight years old.

Women are also restricted in marriage. In addition to the Islamic restriction found in most Arab countries preventing Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims, Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas (religious decrees) — a governmental body — has ruled a Sunni woman should not marry a “Shiite man or a communist (atheist).”

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