Saudi Arabia Will Let Women Drive, but Here Is a List of Things They Still Can't Do

From sports to public dress codes to a very strict segregation policy, Saudi women still struggle in daily life with basic rights like home ownership and employment discrimination

Saudi women speak on phones in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia September 27, 2017
What rights do women in Saudi Arabia still not have? Saudi women speak on phones in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia September 27, 2017 REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Saudi King Salman ordered Tuesday that women be allowed to drive, ending a restriction seen by rights activists as an emblem of the Islamic kingdom's repression of women. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to ban women from driving, and nearly three decades ago women first began agitating for the right to drive, at times facing arrest for their protests and for getting behind the wheel.

The lifting of the ban, which comes into effect next summer, is the most dramatic step yet in a campaign by the king’s son, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to modernize the kingdom. The young royal has been promoting change as needed to boost the country’s economy and ease international criticism, but he risks a backlash from powerful clerics from the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Here is a look at some of the biggest outstanding women's rights issues in Saudi Arabia:

Guardianship system

Women must have a male guardian's approval for decisions in fields including marriage, travel, applying for a passport and even medical treatment and employment in some cases. Many aspects of the guardianship system are not codified in law but stem from informal practice.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States has said women will not need permission from a guardian to get a driving licence nor to have a guardian in the car.

Earlier this year King Salman issued an order allowing women to benefit from services such as education and healthcare without the consent of a male guardian. Rights groups say this is being implemented only on an ad hoc basis.

Legal proceedings

Women may testify in court, but in some cases their testimony is considered worth only half that of a man. The kingdom has removed requirements that a woman bring a male relative to identify them in court.

Saudi Arabia licensed the first female attorneys to practice law in 2013, with the right to represent clients and to own and run their own law firms.

It has improved women's access to government services in recent years, enabling women to secure their own identity cards and issuing divorced and widowed women family cards, which identify familial relationships and are needed for bureaucratic processes, according to Human Rights Watch.

Public dress code

Women are required to dress modestly, but there is no specific written dress code and compliance varies in different regions and different situations. In practice, most Saudi women are expected to wear the long, dark abaya robe and a headscarf.

Dress is monitored by religious police and women have been detained and released for immodest clothing. The requirements do not tend to apply to foreign women.

Segregation

Unrelated Saudi men and women are not supposed to mix, meaning that they are separated into male and family sections in restaurants or entertainment venues or in sex-segregated areas at conferences.

In a business environment women can find themselves in areas where they have little or no access to senior officials and policymakers, who are mainly male.

The strict segregation policies act as a disincentive to employers wanting to hire women. Businesses and government agencies in Saudi Arabia are segregated, with the exception of oil giant Saudi Aramco and some foreign companies.

Saudi Arabia allowed women into the national stadium for the first time this week as it launched celebrations to mark the 87th anniversary of its founding.

Housing

There is no formal bar on women buying or renting property but it can be difficult for women to do so without a male relative, according to rights groups.

Employment

The Saudi government wants to encourage female participation in the workforce. Authorities have removed restrictions on women's work in the labour code and ended formal requirements for women to obtain a guardian's permission to work, but some employers still demand this and are not penalised for doing so.

Saudi women have been moving into roles previously reserved for men such as retail, air traffic control and emergency call centres.

But the vast majority of chief executives and senior government officials are male and all-male workplaces can lack basic facilities like ladies' restrooms.

Sports

Conservative clerics have repeatedly said women who do physical exercise are immodest, even when they are not in public or seen by men.

But Saudi public schools will begin offering physical education for girls in this academic year, the education ministry announced in July, and the advisory Shura council has opened the door to licensing women's gyms. The kingdom sent two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and four to the 2016 games.