USCIRF Urges Saudi Government to Release Imprisoned Supporters of Women’s Rights
WASHINGTON, DC (STL.News) – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) yesterday welcomed changes to Saudi Arabia’s laws that decrease restrictions imposed on women by the religiously-grounded male guardianship system. The changes allow women to travel without a guardian’s permission, maintain legal guardianship over their children, and register marriages, births, and divorces.
“We welcome further steps by Saudi Arabia to improve religious freedom for women across the Kingdom,” said USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins. “USCIRF has long advocated for changes to the repressive guardianship system, and we are encouraged by the Saudi government’s loosening of these limitations. We urge the Saudi government to continue enacting policies that empower and protect women and promote enforcement of the changes.”
Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system is based on Islamic religious concepts and imposed on Saudi women regardless of their religion or beliefs. It treats Saudi women as legal minors for life, and has denied them the ability to conduct basic civic functions without the permission of a male guardian. USCIRF has recommended since 2017 that the Saudi government devise a plan to end the guardianship system, a step it agreed to take a decade ago, following its UN universal periodic review in 2009. In 2018, several women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia who had peacefully protested the guardianship system were arrested. While some have since been released, others remain in prison, and have alleged severe mistreatment. Other limitations of the guardianship system, including allowing a guardian to take a woman to court for “disobedience” or “leaving home,” remain in place.
“We call on Saudi Arabia to end the guardianship system and release all religious prisoners of conscience, including Saudi women’s rights activists detained last year for peacefully protesting the guardianship laws,” said USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza. “Religious freedom is the right of Saudi women under international law. The silencing of peaceful activists who seek the abolition of guardianship directly contradicts the Saudi government’s official narrative of working toward greater modernization and improving religious freedom conditions.”
USCIRF again recommended in 2019 that Saudi Arabia be designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom. Although the State Department has designated Saudi Arabia a CPC since 2004, in 2006 it placed an indefinite waiver on taking any action as a consequence of the CPC designation. USCIRF continues to urge the U.S. government to lift the waiver.