Saudi Arabia is planning to give women more autonomy on decisions concerning education, work and driving.
According to media outlets in the country, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud reportedly issued an order that would allow women to make use of government services such as education and healthcare, without getting permission from a male guardian.
The announcement follows Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN’s women commission, which works to “shape global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women”.
The move prompted backlash from human rights organisations who say male guardianship is an impediment to realising women’s rights.
Saudi Arabia ranked 141 among 144 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.
“Male guardianship is un-Islamic and humiliating for women. Some (men) take advantage of this male guardianship for their own benefit and abuse it,” said Maha Akeel, a women’s rights campaigner and a director at Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
As part of efforts to diversify its economy and reduce reliance on oil, the country started to include women in the workforce and the late King Abdullah allowed women onto the government advisory Shura Council in 2011.
The move allowed women to vote in municipal elections for the first time in 2015, work in some retail and hospitality jobs as well as compete in the Olympics.
Now, the new changes mean women can study and access hospital treatment, work in the public and private sector and represent themselves in court without consent of a male guardian, according to Akeel.
Akeel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “Now at least it opens the door for discussion on the guardian system. Women are independent and can take care of themselves.