As a precursor to Saudi Arabia's report on its commitment to significant Human Rights advances at the 25th session of UN Human Rights Council, Saudi's Deputy Minister of Labor for International Affairs, featured on Newsnight this week to boast the key aspects of the report with a focus on "holistic" steps on achieving female empowerment. But a failure to confirm the lifting of the driving ban for women, even after three pushy prompts by Jeremy Paxman, made it clear that "holistic" does not include an overturn on the ban.
Imagine my surprise, the day after, the night before, at hearing that Saudi have agreed to explicit recommendations from many countries to "abolish" the male guardianship system to an audience of diplomats and UN members. It's an extraordinary step for a country who's cultural psyche and identity has been established for generations by these sets of customs and laws, even permeating across borders and influencing other Muslims around the world. It's a system that entitles fathers, brothers and husbands to be male guardians and have ultimate authority about decisions regarding women's education, medical help, jobs and even bank accounts.
By taking such a recommendation seriously, it should be fair to expect the driving ban for women would follow suit, after all, it's been the symbolic focal point for the World's media to form a natural segue to the Mahrem (male guardian) system. However, overturning of the driving ban for women forms one of the few recommendations that have not been supported by the Kingdom. So with Saudi taking the dismantling of the male guardian system seriously, how will the change play out in the Kingdom? Will the end of the archaic and impractical way of life be the beginning of hope for women in Saudi?
The legal and socio-cultural landscape of Saudi society means that there will be a fair few implementation challenges. For instance, without a legal system that codifies any legal framework, there's nothing to refer to. The recommendation translated into legal terms would simply join an already growing legal abyss of non-codified sharia rulings, whereby judges are free to interpret religious edicts based on Quranic and Hadith collections - as they see fit. This has already led to inconsistent and questionable decisions in the context of women's rights.
Furthermore, influencing change on the socio-cultural level remains in the driving seat of women, even if they're not able to drive. This does not come without its own set of push backs from the religious police and even family members, that include many women for whom the status quo suits. This equates to a deep cultural resistance to the change. But with women increasingly entering the labour force, especially in arenas of decision making such as, women standing as candidates and being able to vote in municipal elections, due in 2015, the guardianship system will slowly become an untenable system of life.
In spite of marginal progress on women's rights in 2013, Saudi's inclusion into the UN Human Right's Committee has not passed without criticism from human right's body's and international observers, especially with a recent spate of coverage on human rights abuses against women within the royal family itself. It would be too idealistic to expect overnight change, however Saudi's mere aspiration to belong to an international human rights council, should not be dismissed as window dressing, especially in this post Arab Spring era. It's better for it to be at the negotiating table than outside, so that the language of change can challenge the status quo.