World News

How Guardianship Laws Still Control Saudi Women

Posted June 22, 2018 6:35 p.m. EDT

Saudi women are subject to what are known as guardianship laws, legal codes based on a strict interpretation of Shariah law, coupled with a rigidly traditional view of the sexes. In many aspects of life, a woman remains a legal dependent, no matter her age, education level or marital status. She needs a male guardian — a father, uncle, husband, brother or son — to consent to a variety of basic needs.

“It’s a long struggle, and a long road to serious equality,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics.

In 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, including the guardianship system. Last year, King Salman signed a series of royal decrees that have loosened some of these restrictions. But in a range of activities and life choices, Saudi women cannot decide themselves.


The Education Ministry generally requires a guardian, known as a wali, to approve a young woman’s enrollment in school. If she wants to study in a university outside her hometown, a guardian needs to approve her travel and accommodations. If she wins a scholarship to study abroad, a guardian must approve her application for a passport and give consent for her to depart the country. Traditional customs mean that young women studying abroad generally need a male relative to accompany them, acting as chaperones.

Work and Money

Companies and government offices customarily ask a woman to bring her guardian to consent to paid employment outside the home, although the law does not formally require this. Also by custom, banks require a guardian’s approval for a woman to open a savings account, let alone get a loan or credit card. Women only last year got the right to open a business in their own name and the right to sign a rental contract for housing in their own name, although many landlords refuse to consider a single woman as a tenant.


Permission to marry must be granted by a guardian. Without guardian consent, a Saudi court will not recognize a marriage. Women who would like to marry non-Saudis must seek the approval of the Ministry of Interior, another process that requires a guardian’s consent. Permission to marry a non-Muslim is close to impossible in Saudi Arabia. Within the guardianship system, once a woman is married, her husband becomes her guardian. If her husband dies, guardianship transfers to her son — or back to her father, or an uncle if her father is dead.


Women in Saudi Arabia are not guaranteed a fair trial. Their witness statements carry half the weight of a man’s. Women are allowed half the inheritance of male family members. A recent royal decree reversed decades of precedent whereby divorced women would automatically lose custody of children to their husbands.

A woman who does not heed her guardian can be arrested on charges of “disobedience.” If a woman is detained for any reason, the police will not release her unless her guardian comes to pick her up — even if she faces no criminal charges. Women practice law in Saudi Arabia, but there are no women judges.


Passports and state identification documents must be procured with the consent of a woman’s guardian. But Saudi women do not need their guardian’s approval to get a driver’s license.


Women are expected to wear all-encompassing and modest attire while in public. Saudi Arabia employs an entire division of police responsible for maintaining public morality, and can detain women and men whose clothing and actions do not conform to strict interpretations of proper dress. Recent reforms mean that some public spaces are now open for limited social mixing of the genders, like cinemas or sports events, but even in those areas of public life, women are expected to be accompanied by a male chaperone. Religious police no longer have the power to make arrests, but they remain on the job.