Rights Group Presses Saudis For Reform

Unidentified Saudi women walk along a suburban street in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in this Nov. 15, 2006 file photo. The kingdom's judicial system, particularly the wide discretion judges have in sentencing criminals, has come under scrutiny following the gang rape of a 19-year-old woman and her male friend.
The Saudi government should abide by international obligations and abolish polices that "grossly" discriminate against women, a report by a leading human rights group said.

In the report released Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the U.S.-allied kingdom to end the practice of sex segregation and polices that make male relatives the legal guardians of women.

The report draws on more than 100 interviews with Saudi Arabian women, documenting the effects that those policies have on their rights.

"The Saudi government sacrifices basic human rights to maintain male control over women," said Farida Deif, a Middle Eastern women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Saudi women won't make any progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies."

Saudi women often must obtain permission from a guardian - a father, husband, brother or son - to work, travel, study, marry or even access health care. They cannot open bank accounts for their children, enroll them in school, obtain school files, or travel with their children without written permission from the child's father.

Saudi women also are prevented from accessing government agencies that have not established female sections unless they have a male representative. Despite national regulations to the contrary, some hospitals require a male guardian's permission to allow women to be admitted, have medical procedures performed or be discharged, the report found.

A Saudi woman's access to justice is also severely constrained. Women continue to have trouble filing a court case or even being heard in court without a legal guardian, according to the report. Women are required to wear a full face veil in court and be accompanied by a male relative who is able to verify their identity, it said.

Mufleh al-Qahtani, deputy head of the National Society for Human Rights, said the group was studying the report and could not immediately comment on it.

In its report, Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to "take immediate action to address the human rights abuses resulting from male guardianship policies."

It said King Abdullah should establish an oversight mechanism to ensure that government agencies no longer request permission from a guardian to allow adult women to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care or access any public service.

"The Saudi government should abide by its international obligations and dismantle this grossly discriminatory system," said the report.