Under the system, women are barred from travelling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or exiting prison without the consent of a male relative.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) study comes as the kingdom works to implement its ‘Vision 2030’ and ‘National Transformation Plan’ to wean it off its dependence on oil, including government targets to boost women’s participation in the workforce.
The report was published just seven months after Saudi women were allowed the right to run and vote for the first time in the country’s only local elections, for municipal council seats.
It found that even with these greater opportunities, a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia rests largely on “the good will” of her male guardian — often a father, husband, brother, or in some cases her son.
A 25-year-old referred to as Zahra in the report said her father used to beat her so severely that at one point she temporarily lost her vision and had to be hospitalised.
Although her parents divorced and she lived with her mother, her father remained her legal guardian. He refused to allow her to study abroad on scholarship and she cannot travel abroad for work without his permission.
HRW, which interviewed 61 Saudis inside and outside the kingdom over the past nine months, said it used pseudonyms for its interviewees for security reasons.
“Guardianship really creates a system that is ripe for abuse,” said the report’s author Kristine Beckerle, a fellow in HRW’s Mideast division.
Saudi Arabia’s legal system and social norms are underpinned by an ultraconservative Islamic ideology widely known as Wahhabism.
Powerful Wahhabi clerics support the imposition of male guardianship based on a verse in the Koran that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women.
Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Koranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes. Other Muslim-majority countries, even those with Sharia courts, do not have similarly restrictive male guardianship laws.
HRW says the Saudi system effectively renders adult women as legal minors.
Under the kingdom’s ambitious economic reform plans, women are encouraged to enter the workforce and companies are given incentives to boost female employment.
However, penalties are not imposed on employers who refuse to hire women without the permission of male relatives. Some universities also require guardianship permission to enrol.