Women in Saudi Arabia could soon be awarded greater freedoms when it comes to their ability to work and study without permission, following the issue of a new royal decree.

It has been reported that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a new directive which would enable women to benefit from government services provided to them, such as education and healthcare, as well as the ability to work without needing to obtain the consent of male guardian, “unless there is a legal basis for this request in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah”, reported Arab News.

The directive was issued to all government agencies concerned, “after approval of proposals raised by the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers to resolve issues related to human rights”, it said, with the decree understood to come into effect in three months’ time.

Human rights groups and activists have welcomed the news. Speaking to Thomson Reuters Foundation, Maha Akeel, a women’s rights campaigner and a director at the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, said the changes mean women could, in some circumstances, study and access hospital treatment, work in the public and private sector and represent themselves in court without the consent of a male guardian. “Now, at least, it opens the door for discussion on the guardian system," she added.

Activist Sahar Nasief told Al Jazeera news the decree was the first step towards equal rights. She said she hoped it would put a stop to arbitrary demands by government officials for permission from male relatives, which she claimed were often based on local customs rather than religious teachings.

The new decree also looks to be a step forward in the goal to increase female participation in the workforce. Only 22 per cent of Saudi’s workforce is currently female, but there is a target to increase this to 30 per cent as part of the Kingdom’s Vision for 2030.

However a last month by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics, showed that more than 80 per cent of the country’s job seekers are women, suggesting the Kingdom is having difficulty creating enough jobs to meet to demands of the female population who want to work.

Last month, United Nations members elected Saudi Arabia to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

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