Abolition of Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship is Both Heroic and Risky for MbS

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Saudi Arabia is considering lifting travel restrictions for women by relaxing the repressive, iron-fisted male guardianship laws. If this idea becomes a reality, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might just be able to arrest the continuing stream of criticism he endures, but only partially. Saudi women are still at the mercy of male guardians to make major life decisions, including marriage, divorce and acquiring a passport.

But the abolition of the repressive law will surely be a meaningful reform, unlike the law allowing women to drive, which only offered a superficial sense of emancipation.

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship law has been heavily condemned in recent times, after a spate of incidents involving women who fled the Kingdom, grabbed global headlines.

Dina Ali Lasloom attempted to seek asylum in Australia to escape Saudi guardianship laws in early 2017. She was stopped during transit in Manila, and sent back to Riyadh the next day. Lasloom’s current whereabouts remain unknown.

In January, 2019, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq al-Qunun successfully escaped alleged abuse at the hands of her family. She was given refugee status in Canada.

Considering the various laws that inhibit women’s growth in Saudi Arabia, it can be safely assumed that given an opportunity, quite a few of them would prefer to live in an environment free of oppression, where they are respected for who they are and not treated as second-class citizens.

It is in this context that Saudi Arabia’s purported abolition of guardianship law could pave the way for the aggrieved women in the Kingdom to realize their dream.

A double-edged sword

The idea behind the reported proposal to relax the law would be to reassure the West, and the world at large, that MbS is committed to carry on with his reforms. It would also go some distance in offsetting the global denunciation after Washington Post journalist and Saudi critic, Jamal Khashoggi, was brutally murdered in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A CIA Report and other assessments have indicted MbS as the man behind the plot.

However, permission to leave the country without needing approval from a male guardian will also make it convenient for Saudi women to seek asylum in foreign countries. They will no longer need to go through the dangerous process of plotting their escape, which is fraught with danger of being caught, detained and tortured.

Do it Anyway

MbS’ biggest problem right now is the damage to his reputation. It continues to get battered. Most global leaders, as well as citizens, consider MbS’ uncompromising attitude, his patriarchal mindset and unwillingness to value human rights as the reasons why the Kingdom is viewed negatively.

Male guardianship law is considered outrageous not just in the west, but all over. If he really wants to make some sort of an impression, he should make the abolition of the law a reality, even if it means letting some choose not to come back after they go away for a ‘supposed’ vacation.

It’s time MbS started looking at the bigger picture.

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