Times have changed in the Kingdom, and Saudi women are gaining more and more rights — something much of the world is still ignorant about.
Many people around the world have been fed wrong ideas about Saudi Arabia’s 32 million population, of which nearly half are women, according to a Step Feed report citing the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.
Women in the Kingdom can and do open their own bank accounts without the need for a male guardian’s permission, contrary to several false reports by renowned media outlets.
Women do have the authority over their own bodies and health as elective surgeries or medical treatments can be freely sought without permission from a male guardian.
“The Law of Practicing Healthcare Professions in Saudi Arabia states in article 19 that the competent patient has the right to decide on the surgery, it means that it applies for both genders,” Dima Talal Al-Sharif, a lawyer at the Law Firm of Majed Garoub in Jeddah, told Arab News.
Since the historical royal decree on September 26 last year allowing women to drive, obtaining a driver’s license does not require a guardian’s consent. “Saudi women are allowed to get a driver's license without permission from a legal guardian,” said Al-Sharif.
Since 2006, Saudi women have been able to apply for their own personal identification cards too, she added.
“As per the King’s instructions, Saudi women will be allowed to issue and renew their own passports without the guardian's permission very soon, in addition to studying abroad and traveling without their guardian's permission,” according to Al-Sharif.
“Some Saudi families allow their daughters to travel abroad without a male companion, be it for tourism or treatment,” said Riham Al-Saadi, 27, a Saudi national who has traveled to several countries without her male guardians. Al-Sharif agreed, saying that some Saudi families allow their daughters to travel alone through the electronic travel permission.
Saudi female lawyers can also plead in Saudi courtrooms, a change that came about after 2013 when the first female trainee advocate was registered, achieving a significant victory for women who were subsequently allowed to practice as lawyers.
Jeddah-based attorney Bayan Zahran became the first Saudi woman to open a law firm in January 2014.
Al-Sharif also pointed out that women have the right to issue a power of attorney by themselves.
Women are also allowed to start their own businesses without the need for a male guardian’s permission, be it a husband, father, brother or even son, explained the lawyer citing the Ministry of Commerce and Investment.
As for renting apartments and cars, Al-Sharif said, “King Salman ordered all women’s procedures to be facilitated since having their own national ID. So she has the right to rent an apartment or even a car. However, most rental offices ignore this and never apply it and require a male guardian’s [permission].”
Applying for a job is another basic right that Saudi women enjoy without the interference of a male guardian.
Claiming that women cannot mix with the opposite gender is not entirely true. While it applies in some workplaces, men and women do interact in public place like malls, restaurants and universities, where female students in Saudi universities have male instructors in classes.
Saudi courts sometimes also grant mothers custody of their children in cases where the father is found ineligible, Al-Sharif added.
Wearing a full-length black abaya is not mandatory in the country either. Women still can wear colorful robes without headscarves in some big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh. Medicine students and nurses publicly move around the hospital grounds wearing a white lab coat.
Al-Saadi said one of the biggest misconceptions she has heard about Saudi women is that they are not allowed to leave the house and they only “cook and obey men”.
“This is very wrong. Thankfully, we are living our lives to the fullest, and all these wrong ideas about us do not exist on the ground.”
A documentary about women in Saudi Arabia would be a good way to educate people, she suggested. “A documentary that shows our lives, how we are happily living. I think this is the fastest way to correct the misconceptions about us.”
Al-Sharif, the lawyer, believes that some of the misconceptions come from women's own lack of awareness of their rights.
In July 2016, an app called “Know Your Rights” was launched by Saudi lawyer Nasreen Alissa, to help spread awareness among her peers.The media plays a major role in marketing inaccurate information and claims too, said Al-Sharif.
“The solution to raise women’s awareness of their rights can be the media itself, through the proper coverage of women's empowerment and the correction of the inaccurate information.”
Her advice to Saudi women is to be more vocal about their rights.
“As a Saudi woman, it’s your turn now to look for rights and to make sure that such rights are known and applied.”