"I got into an accident in a taxi, and the ambulance refused to take me to the hospital until my male guardian arrived. I had lost a lot of blood. If he didn't arrive that minute, I would've been dead by now," tweeted Rulaa, 19-year-old Saudi Arabian female teenager in October 2016.

In December 2015, women were allowed to vote and stand in elections in Saudi Arabia for first time in the modern history of the kingdom. The religious establishment opposed the move with the Grand Mufti describing it as "opening the door to evil", while women's rights campaigners said it heralded a turning point for women's rights in this tightly regulated absolute monarchy. In the same year, a gender gap index by the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia as among the worst countries to be a woman, placing it at 134 out of 145 nations. Did the election signal an improvement in the status of women in Saudi Arabia, or was it window dressing?

The country is run by the Al Saud family with the support of the Wahhabi muslim sect, which is deeply conservative, and gave birth to the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS. The authority of the ruling family relies on the continued support of the Wahhabi muslim clerics who helped them conquer local tribes and create the kingdom in 1902 in return for enforcing Wahhabi islam. The leaders of the sect are opposed to any change in the rights of women, so even though a small number of the ruling members of the ruling family have suggested expanding women's rights, no action has been taken to date for fear of what their reaction might be.

Under the late King Abdullah, it looked like women's rights were inching forward, but under King Salman who took over in January 2015, the trend has been reversed. King Salman fired members of the government in favour of more rights for women and filled the roles with hardliners. He also got rid of the only women in government, the minister of education.
Municipalities have no real power - 978 women stood for election and 20 were elected out of a possible total of 2,100. The enforcement of restrictions has made it difficult for the women to fulfil their roles in some areas. So, for example, some councils will not allow women to attend meetings where men are present which means not being able to attend any council meetings.

Saudi Arabia is the only country worldwide where women are expressly forbidden from driving supported by arguments from it is unIslamic to it will reduce the fertility of women. During the election campaign, women candidates and voters were totally reliant on their male relatives to get to events and polling stations, men who were often unwilling or unable to oblige. Many women did not vote simply because they could not get to the women only polling stations.

Despite campaigns to permit women to drive like the spoof song 'No women, no drive', it looks unlikely that any change is imminent. "Saudi Arabia isn't ready to end the ban on women driving", Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, reinforced by the Grand Mufti who said allowing women to drive was "a dangerous matter that should not be permitted". Women campaigning for the right to drive have landed in jail under charges of terrorism.

The guardianship system in Saudi Arabia means that women are in effect, legal minors for their entire lives. Saudi women required the permission of their male guardian to vote or stand in the election of 2015. Many guardians simply refused permission. Unsurprisingly, only about 130,000 women registered to vote, compared to 1.4 million men.

As Saudi Arabia is strictly segregated on gender grounds, women candidates were not permitted to talk to possible male supporters directly. All communication with men had to take place through a male spokesman appointed by their guardian. Sex segregation is strictly monitored by the religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, in all work and public spaces other than in hospitals. Unlawful mixing between sexes leads to the immediate arrest of the violators and criminal charges. The commission is brutal in exacting punishment which is consistently more severe for women.
The combination of sex segregation and male guardianship has grave consequences for the health and safety of women. In 2002, when a girl's school caught fire, 15 girls died because the religious police would not let them escape the burning school as they did have the right religious clothing to appear in public. One witness said he saw three policemen "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya".

Officials are entitled to require guardian's permission for a woman to be "admitted, discharged, or receive treatment." For example, in July 2015, after a car chase left the driver dead and his wife and daughter in critical condition, King Fahd Hospital in Baha postponed amputating the wife's hand because she had no male legal guardian to authorize the procedure.

Very recently, Saudi Arabia banned domestic violence, widespread in the country but this is a meaningless law as women require the permission of their guardian to file a complaint, even when the complaint is against the guardian. So a wife abused by her husband, needs his permission to file a complaint against him for the abuse!! Even, on the rare occasions when a prosecution takes place, the consequences for men are extremely lenient. For example, in May, Jeddah's Summary Court convicted a man for physically abusing his wife to the point of hospitalization, and sentenced him to learning by heart five parts of the Quran and 100 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, instructing that she must return to him once recovered.

Human Rights Watch released a video captioned "Even when they abuse their wives, Saudi men still act as guardians over them #TogetherTo EndMaleGuardianship", which has been shared more than 2,300 times and gained more 8,400 'likes' in 12 hours. It shows a woman being beaten by her husband before he orders her to leave. She goes to a shelter and is told to reconcile with her husband. It proceeds to show her husband signing a sheet of paper before pulling the crying woman out of the shelter and beating her in the home again.

It is not just about voting which hardly seems like the turning point for women's rights some claimed. Women remain powerless in Saudi Arabia to decide how to live their lives, and to oppose abuse and oppression. Education reinforces roles that match "women's nature and future role as wives and mothers" and employment law requires that "women shall work in all fields suitable to their nature" (article 149) in adherence with Sharia. Men still have power over women because of the guardianship system which requires that every adult Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, must obtain permission from her male guardian to work, travel, study, seek medical treatment, enrol children at school, and marry. When women are cruelly treated, men are almost immune from prosecution, or on the rare occasions when it happens, suffer only minor consequences. Being a woman in Saudi Arabia must be demeaning and unpleasant.

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