Saudis sent telegrams to the king on Sunday pressing the monarchy to end male guardianship rules for women, the culmination of an unprecedented monthslong effort to abolish the system.
By Sunday evening, activists estimated hundreds of people had sent a copy of the same message to the royal court asking King Salman to cancel regulations that give men the final say on many important decisions in the lives of female relatives.
It is a change for which women’s rights activists in the ultraconservative kingdom have long campaigned. The telegrams are one of several grass-roots initiatives that have sprung up since July, when an Arabic hashtag that translated to “Saudi women want to abolish the guardianship system” first went viral on Twitter in the oil-rich Gulf nation.
Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving has been criticized world-wide. But many women see male guardianship as a bigger barrier to exercising full citizenship rights. Legally, Saudi women need permission from a male guardian—typically a father, husband or son—to marry, travel outside the kingdom or study abroad, among other things.
Saudi Arabia twice told the United Nations it would abolish the guardianship system, most recently in 2013, according to Human Rights Watch.
Saudi officials on Sunday didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has long resisted pressure to lift the restrictions because of the influence of a powerful religious establishment and the deeply conservative culture.
Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, recently said calls to repeal the guardianship system are “a crime against the religion of Islam” and posed “an existential threat to Saudi society.”
Sheik Abdullah al-Manea, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, the country’s top religious body, disagreed, saying Islam doesn’t require women to have male guardians except when they marry.
Campaigners opted to deliver their message via an old-school system, the telegram, because it can be tracked until delivery and is traceable to senders, who participants want to show are Saudis.
Aziza al-Yousef, a leading women’s rights advocate, plans to deliver, in person to the royal court on Monday, a petition signed by about 14,700 Saudis that asks the monarch to end guardianship.
“The message is: women have to be full citizens, like men,” said Ms. Yousef, a retired professor of computer science at Riyadh’s King Saud University. “I am very hopeful.”
The words “I Am My Own Guardian”—borrowed from the work of a Saudi artist who calls herself Ms. Saffaa—have become the movement’s unofficial slogan, and has been featured on stickers and rubber bracelets.
Ramyah, a Saudi woman who asked to be identified by her first name only, said three different operators from Saudi Telecom Co. failed to send her telegram, one of them bluntly saying he objected to its content. Finally, she said, a supervisor sent her message.
“It is a legal way to contact our king and they are trying to scare us,” said Ramyah. “It made me really, really angry.”
The guardianship system is made up of a series of regulations and practices, not all required by law.
Some hospitals, for instance, want the approval of male relatives before performing medical procedures on women. Potential employers can ask women to demonstrate their guardian approves of them working. The Saudi government generously hands out scholarships for study abroad—but for women, they are conditional on a male relative accompanying them.
The lot of Saudi women has improved in recent years. They make up a majority of university students. They have risen to senior positions in business and recently participated in municipal elections for the first time. But for many Saudi women, the progress has only deepened their frustration by making the imbalance the more glaring.
Many hope the changing economic reality, the result of low oil prices, has created a climate conducive to social change. Bringing more women into the workforce is a goal of the government’s new long-term economic plan, Vision 2030.
“We are linking our demands to the 2030 vision. How can it succeed if half of society is paralyzed?” asked Saher Nasief, a retired professor of languages who has nine granddaughters. “We are doing it for the next generation.”
Ramyah, 37, who led the telegram initiative, feels strongly about ending guardianship because of personal experience. A college-educated nurse, for years she was her family’s main breadwinner, supporting her unemployed husband. Even then, her husband refused to let her travel.
When she obtained a divorce and moved back with her parents, her guardianship—she calls it “ownership”—returned to her father.
“At work, I am very respected,” said Ramyah. “But when I come home I have another personality: I am a child again.”