Saudi women will no longer need a man's permission to travel or study

Saudi women shop at Al-Hayatt mall in Riyadh February 15, 2012. /REUTERS
Saudi women shop at Al-Hayatt mall in Riyadh February 15, 2012. /REUTERS

A move by Saudi Arabia to give women more control over their life choices by relaxing a controversial male guardian system has been welcomed as another small step for women in the conservative kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is well known to be one of the world's most gender-segregated nations, where women live under the supervision of a male guardian, cannot drive, and must wear head-to-toe black garments in public.

Women need approval from a man to travel, study and get some health treatments.

But local media reported this week that King Salman has issued an order allowing women to benefit from government services such as education and healthcare without the consent of a male guardian.

This means women could, in some circumstances, study and access hospital treatment, work in the public and private sector and represent themselves in court without a guardian's consent, according to Maha Akeel, a women's rights campaigner and a director at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

He said: "Now at least it opens the door for discussion on the guardian system.

Women are independent and can take care of themselves."

The order is the latest in a series of steps taken by Saudi Arabia to include women more in the workforce as the kingdom moves to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on oil.

The trend started in 2011 when the late King Abdullah allowed women onto the government advisory Shura Council. Women can now vote in municipal elections, work in some retail and hospitality jobs and were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012.

But Saudi Arabia was still ranked 141 of 144 countries in the 2016 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.

The system of male guardianship, which requires women to obtain permission from a father, husband, or son to travel, study or marry is an impediment to realising women's rights, say rights groups.

Akeel said: "Male guardianship is un-Islamic and humiliating for women.

Some (men) take advantage of this male guardianship for their own benefit and abuse it."

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star