LONDON, June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Saudi women take the driving seat in a landmark legal change, a survey of global experts released on Tuesday has found they live in the world's fifth most dangerous country for women, their lives tightly controlled by male relatives.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of about 550 experts on women's issues ranked Saudi Arabia among the five most dangerous dangerous countries, after India, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
The conservative kingdom was named the second worst for women after Afghanistan for economic opportunities and discriminatory policies, and also fared poorly on non-sexual violence such as domestic abuse.
The low ranking came despite the lifting of a decades-long ban on women driving on June 24.
Critics said the main problem was Saudi Arabia's guardianship policy, whereby women must have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.
"The guardianship is the chain around each and every woman's neck in Saudi Arabia," said Ahlam Akram, director of British Arabs Supporting Universal Women's Rights.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a campaigner with rights group Equality Now, said she was not surprised by the kingdom's poor poll ranking.
"Women's rights in Saudi Arabia is a catastrophe ... women have to get the approval of their male guardian for every aspect of their life. It's too much," said Abu-Dayyeh from the group's Middle East and North Africa branch in Jordan.
PROGRESS OR PROPAGANDA
Many had hailed the lifting of the ban on women driving as proof of a new progressive trend under reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
That optimism was tempered by the arrest and detention of prominent activists who had campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the male guardianship system.
"Under this environment created by an absolute monarchy that doesn't tolerate any challenges to the authority, it's very difficult for women to push back," said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi human rights activist based in the United States.
She said the crackdown on activists who advocated for reform had created a lack of social support for women forced into marriage or facing domestic violence.
"If you're trying to push the government to change anything through activism and highlight women's issues, you're considered a traitor of the state. It's really unprecedented," she said.
Saudi-based journalist and writer Maha Akeel, however, said the country's poor ranking failed to reflect major improvements in women's rights.
Women now enjoy more opportunities in the workplace, are allowed to vote and stand in municipal elections, and there are plans to outlaw sexual harassment.
"There's always room for improvement ... and the important thing is that there are efforts to address the rights of women and to protect them and defend them through policies and legislations," Akeel said in emailed comments.
The government did not respond to requests for comment on the results.
Supporters are hopeful the prince's work on the country's Vision 2030, which aims to lift women's participation in the workforce to 30 percent from 22 percent, will open more doors.
However, journalist Alia Alansari, born and educated in Saudi Arabia, said she was sceptical about seeing reform in her lifetime.
"I don't buy it all. It's nice propaganda, but in reality, a female is still going to be under somebody else," said the 22-year-old Jordan-based writer.
"Even though they are allowed to drive, the power is still with the man."
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)