RIYADH (AFP) - Saudi Arabia's government should end the kingdom's ban on women driving and reform the male guardianship system, a United Nations independent expert said on Thursday (Jan 19).
Philip Alston spoke at the end of a 12-day visit during which he met Cabinet ministers, people living in poverty, activists, Islamic experts and others.
"My concern is that the government is in fact deferring to a relatively small portion of conservative voices," Alston told a news conference.
This is obstructing the economic and social progress which the oil-rich kingdom aims to achieve under a wide-ranging reform programme released last year, said Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
"So I feel very strongly that the kingdom should move to enable women to drive cars," said Alston, an independent expert who reports to the UN's Human Rights Council.
He said features of the guardianship system which hinder women's ability to work and travel "need to be reformed." Under that system a male family member, normally the father, husband or brother, must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.
Alston, an Australian legal expert, said driving and guardianship are very much related to poverty. Women in low-paying jobs, for example, cannot afford to hire drivers.
He said he visited Jazan, in the kingdom's southwest, because it is the poorest part of the country.
He found conditions there "that I think would shock Saudi citizens."
Alston also called on the government to "liberalise" its approach to social media, after he received reports of "instances in which it has cracked down on certain people" communicating over the Internet.