Sabeeha al-Fakher, a 68-year-old Saudi widow, drives her pearl-silver Lexus in the coastal town of Qatif, about 400 kilometres east of the capital Riyadh Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: A new Saudi court ruling has stated that “an adult, rational woman living independently is not a crime” and this could help to improve gender equality in the kingdom. Lawyer Abdul Rahman Al Lahim described the ruling as “historical” as “it ends tragic stories many women lived in the past.”

Under the old “absenteeism” law, parents were allowed to file a report with the police against a woman in the event of her disappearance or living independently, without obtaining a prior permission from the guardian.

Dr. Muflih Al Qahtani, chairman of the National Society for Human Rights, explains that the right to housing is a basic human right in general, and a woman has the right to obtain appropriate housing for herself with her family or relatives or in a safe and secure independent house, if her living with her family poses a threat to her life or is harmful to her.

“Balance must be made between ensuring the protection of women, providing adequate housing for them and the cohesion of the family and the maintenance of its stability,” Al Qahtani told Asharq Al Awsat.

Saudi Arabia has eased travel restrictions on women but observers say loopholes still allow male relatives to curtail their movements and, in the worst cases, leave them marooned in prison-like shelters.

In August last year, the kingdom allowed women over the age of 21 to obtain passports without seeking the approval of their “guardians” - fathers, husbands or other male relatives.

The move, part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to revamp the national image, ended a longstanding rule that prompted some extreme attempts to flee the kingdom.

But campaigners warned it is easy to sidestep the reform.

While allowing travel documents, Saudi Arabia has not done away with “taghayyub” - a legal provision that means “absent” in Arabic and which has long been used to constrain women who leave home without permission.

Guardians can still file a police complaint that their female relatives are ‘absent’, which would lead to their arrest and possible detention in Dar Al Reaya (women’s shelter).

The system of shelters operated around the kingdom is opaque but accounts of conditions there paint a dire picture.

Saudi fathers can’t stop the girls getting passports but they can still declare them missing to local police who will then track them down for the parents.

In 2018, members of the Saudi advisory Shura Council recommended the Justice Ministry stop accepting taghayyub cases as a way to slowly dismantle the guardianship system, but the suggestion seems to have been ignored.

The move was celebrated as a historic leap for gender equality, triggering humorous online memes featuring women dashing to the airport with suitcases - alone.

But it also prompted lamentation for the perceived loss of men’s control.