A new report has called on Saudi Arabia to drop its system of male guardianship that requires Saudi women to obtain a man's permission for everyday activities like work, study, travel and medical care.
New York-based Human Rights Watch spoke with more than 100 Saudi women and interviewed officials in the kingdom, concluding that male guardianship deprives women of basic rights, limits their educational options, hinders their professional advancement and puts them at risk of potentially deadly abuse.
"The male guardianship system is treating women like perpetual legal minors. It's causing real suffering," Farida Deif of Human Rights Watch told ABC News.
Under the current laws an adult woman is legally the charge of a male relative, usually her father, husband or brother. In the case of widows and divorcees, the woman relies on her son.
For women's rights activist Wajeha Al Huwaider, her guardian is her 17-year-old son.
"My 17-year-old is the one in charge of my life. He's the one who has the control if I want to travel. Even if I want to have surgery I have to get permission from him," Al Huwaider told ABC News last month, after posting a YouTube video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia as a form of protest for greater women's rights.
Driving is against the law for women in most parts of the kingdom.
In its report on male guardianship Human Rights Watch lists other activities that require a man's permission, including a woman's ability to obtain medical treatment for her children, to take on certain jobs, to study abroad, to obtain an identity card and to file a case in court.
The report also takes issue with the perceived effects of sex segregation, such as limitations from entering the work force and inferior facilities and academic programs at some of the kingdom's universities.
It expresses concern for victims of domestic abuse, sometimes prey to physical risk at the hands of men who are their legal guardians.
As Saudi women cope with the rules, Al Huwaider says the general consensus is that sons make the worst male guardians because "they feel they own their mothers." Brothers, she says, make the best male guardians. Husbands fall somewhere in between.
"In general, brothers are the best … especially when he has a wife and is open-minded," she said. "But of course we don't want anybody, we want to be responsible for ourselves."
The practice of male guardianship is rooted in Saudi Arabia's dominant interpretation of Islamic law. Known as Wahhabi Islam after 18th century cleric Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, it is a fundamentalist school that emphasizes moral and religious purity.
Monday's report quotes one of Saudi Arabia's clerical councils as defending the guardianship norm in part because "loose interaction across gender lines is one of the major causes of fornication, which disintegrates society and destroys its moral values and all sense of propriety."
The report also notes that other schools of Islamic legal thought do not call for male guardianship over a woman in ways that restrict her independent legal capacity.
"Any restrictions in Saudi law or custom, which prevent women from exercising their legal rights, is a matter of political will and not strict adherence to [Islamic] Hanbali law," the report quotes from Islamic law expert professor Mohammad Fadel.
Change Comes Slowly, but Do Reports Help?
The last year has been a mixture of progressive moves and strict conservatism for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women were granted the right to stay in hotels alone and played their first public soccer match in front of a women-only stadium.
In the same months, international headlines told of one women arrested for sitting with a male co-worker at Starbucks and another sentenced to lashings after suffering a gang rape because she was in the car of a man who wasn't a relative when the two were attacked.
The paradox, says professor Bernard Haikal, reflects the forces at play in Saudi society.
"Very often in discussion of Saudi society and Saudi law it's [falsely] assumed that the government is the only agent that is either imposing the system or can change it unilaterally. The society itself -- with cultural and tribal norms -- holds very fast to a highly gendered and highly male-dominated form of life," said Haikal, an Islamic studies specialist at Princeton University.
"It seems the present government, the king and many ministers around him really do want change," Haikal told ABC News.
"The government has very slowly, very sensitively tried to bring in administrative reforms that give women greater rights. But the application hasn't been easy, there's tremendous resistance on the ground."
When legislative steps are taken, they are hard to enact, as with a 2005 law to promote female participation in the work force, calling for women to replace male salesmen in lingerie shops. Haikal says when there was a conservative uproar opposing the law, it was eventually dropped.
"The government calls itself reform-minded, but they are still paralyzed by the clerical establishment. … It's a question of political will," said Deif of Human Rights Watch, who helped compile the report.
A spokesman for Saudi's Human Rights Commission told Reuters that "we agree with some points and we are working on that as a commission for the government, but we don't agree with the generalization."
Haikal doubts whether this week's report or others like it help to achieve the reforms they call for, despite the authors' best intentions.
"These reports are used as ammunition for slowing change, not moving it along. This is the kind of report where Islamists point to and say Westerners want our women walking around and sleeping around, the West is trying to interfere with our society, identity, our way of life," said Haikal.
Deif acknowledges that in Saudi Arabia and other countries of concern for human rights organizations there can be internal resistance to external pressures.
"There is always a hesitation. Do we stay completely silent and that way the [pro-reform elements] can save face, let things move gradually behind the scenes? Yet with the Qatif case we saw they were embarrassed into dropping the sentence," said Deif, referring to the high-profile case of a rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes in 2007.
"International pressure is what made the difference."