“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” For women in Saudi Arabia, there is no maze. There is only a dark room.

On October 9, women in Saudi Arabia won the right to serve in senior positions in the armed forces. The foreign ministry declared that the positions now open to women include: first soldier, corporal, deputy sergeant and sergeant.

Earlier in June 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman lifted the ban on women driving after more than two decades of women’s campaigning. Prior to that, the ultra-Conservative Muslim country was the only nation to criminalise women driving. These changes are part of the Crown Prince’s plan to make the kingdom’s laws “equal” towards women. In the same year, the Crown Prince stated that women in Saudi Arabia would no longer be obliged to wear headscarves or abaya robes.

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” he said in an interview with CBS television, aired in March 2018.

“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black headcover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.” These decisions, and others, have hinted at the country’s growing tolerance, and even acceptance, of women’s rights.

These hints, however, are not the truth. “Freedom, like everything else, is relative,” Margaret Atwood would write in The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian fiction about the complete negation of women’s rights.

Freedom under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system is completely relative. Women may be allowed to drive but, they cannot leave the house without a male guardian’s permission.

Under the guardianship system, women must receive male permission to obtain a passport, get married, study abroad, leave prison, work and to receive certain healthcare. Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirms that: “Saudi women who fight for their rights publicly may face jail or persecution.”

“It is extremely hard for women to legally change their guardian, even when the guardian is abusive,” it adds.

In April 2017, Dina Ai Lasloom, a Saudi woman fleeing her country, was forcibly returned after being stopped on a layover in the Philippines. On her way to seek asylum in Australia, the young woman was held in Manila Airport, and her passport confiscated. Lasloom would be bound and dragged onto a plane, kicking and screaming, as she was repatriated to Saudi Arabia, escorted by male relatives.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun would make it safely to Canada in 2019. Michael Page, Deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said: “Rahaf Mohammed’s courageous quest for freedom has exposed anew an array of discriminatory practices and policies that disempower Saudi women and leave them vulnerable to abuse.

“Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wants to be viewed as a women’s rights reformer, but Rahaf showed just how laughably at odds this is from reality when the authorities try to hunt down fleeing women and torture women’s rights activists in prison.”

Under Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian male guardianship system, women suffer systematic discrimination from their birth until their death. The dangerous attempt to escape leaves women facing the risk of imprisonment, torture and abuse should they be sent back. Repatriated women are likely to face criminal charges for parental disobedience or harming the kingdom’s reputation.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s massive human rights’ breach, the nation was elected to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2017, a body “dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

Saudi women continue to have their human rights stripped away from them, as the rest of the world rewards the monumental human rights violation of this oil-rich nation. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the rape, murder, abuse, imprisonment and dehumanisation of women continues, because diplomatic international relationships with Saudi Arabia are permitted.

As was the case in apartheid South Africa, the world must implement economic, political and diplomatic sanctions against Saudi Arabia, if it must free its oppressed from tyranny.

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