RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s government should end the kingdom’s ban on women driving and reform the male guardianship system, a United Nations independent expert said on Thursday.
Philip Alston spoke at the end of a 12-day visit during which he met cabinet ministers, people living in poverty, activists, Islamic experts and others.
“My concern is that the government is in fact deferring to a relatively small portion of conservative voices,” Alston told a news conference.
This is obstructing the economic and social progress which the oil-rich kingdom aims to achieve under its Vision 2030 wide-ranging reform programme, said Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
“So I feel very strongly that the kingdom should move to enable women to drive cars,” said Alston, an independent expert who reports to the UN’s Human Rights Council.
He said features of the guardianship system which hinder women’s ability to work and travel “need to be reformed.” Under that system a male family member, normally the father, husband or brother, must grant permission for a woman’s study, travel and other activities.
Officials have argued that society is not ready for women driving but Alston says the government must take an activist role.
“The role of the government is to work out how it can change the policy and how it can change attitudes,” he said, calling for an educational campaign.
Alston, an Australian legal expert, said driving and guardianship are very much related to poverty. Women in low-paying retail jobs, for example, cannot afford to hire drivers.
He said he visited Jazan, in the kingdom’s southwest, because it is the poorest part of the country, although there are “major problems” in the east as well.
In Jazan he found conditions “that I think would shock Saudi citizens.”