Imagine the humiliation of a middle-aged mother having to ask a young son’s approval for life decisions.
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, is in the United Kingdom this week to meet two female leaders: Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Theresa May. He will see for himself that women have as much to contribute to public life as men.
In Saudi Arabia, governed by Shariah (Islamic law), a woman must live under the authority of a male guardian, her wali al-amr. The Quran (4:34) says, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.” The General Presidency for Scholarly Research, an official body in charge of Islamic legal opinion, has issued a fatwa construing the verse strictly: “A woman should not leave her house, except with her husband’s permission.”
Saudi women do not have freedom of movement and never become fully independent legal persons. Regardless of age, they need permission from a male guardian to travel overseas, apply for a passport, marry, or be released from prison. The guardian is usually a woman’s father or husband, but can also be a brother, cousin or even son. Imagine the humiliation of a middle-aged woman having to ask a young son’s approval for important and mundane life decisions.
Guardians’ reach doesn’t stop at the border. Last April, 24-year-old Dina Ali Lasloom was held up by Filipino authorities as she changed planes at Manila International Airport. Ms. Lasloom had left Saudi Arabia against her family’s wishes. Her Saudi uncles appeared and whisked her back to Riyadh. An airline official told Human Rights Watch he heard Ms. Lasloom begging for help before being carried out in a wheelchair with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands. The Saudi government said this was “a family matter,” and she has not been heard from since.
Could things finally be changing? Around the time Ms. Lasloom was returned to Saudi Arabia, King Salman loosened the guardianship law, permitting women to access services such as health care without the approval of a male relative. Since then, he and the crown prince have promised women the right to vote, work, drive and even join the military. But those rights don’t amount to much with the male guardianship regime in place.
As part of his tour of the U.K. and U.S., the crown prince is hoping to persuade investors to back his Saudi modernization plan, Vision 2030. He stood up to Wahhabi clerics to allow concerts and sporting events in the kingdom, and he confronted the country’s wealthy elite last November, detaining those suspected of corruption at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.
There could be no clearer demonstration of the crown prince’s commitment to bringing Saudi Arabia into the modern era than dismantling the guardianship system. It would earn him credibility with investors and unlock the productive capacity of Saudi women, fewer than 18% of whom participate in the labor force. In 1962, a Saudi royal decree was issued forbidding the sale and purchase of slaves in Saudi Arabia. That, too, was better late than never. Crown Prince Mohammed should belatedly end the subjugation of Saudi women and cement his place as one of the Middle East’s great reformers.