RIYADH (Reuters) - A senior member of Saudi Arabia's top Muslim clerical body has said he believes the kingdom's system of male guardianship should apply only to marriage, a local newspaper reported on Thursday.
Saudi women are required to have male guardians their entire lives, regardless of age. A woman must obtain her guardian's consent before she can travel, marry or be released from prison, and in some cases to work or access healthcare, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
Sheikh Abdullah al-Manea's comment to the Arabic language Okaz newspaper is unlikely to bring immediate change in the status of women, but may be an opening for women's rights supporters to press for relaxation of strict social traditions.
Manea made his comment in response to a question about an online campaign calling for an end to the guardianship system.
The country's top religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, earlier in the week had described such a call as a crime against Sunni Islam and the teachings of the Koran.
Manea, who sits on the powerful Council of Senior Scholars, said that adult women who are capable of managing their affairs had the right to make their own financial and legal decisions, except on the issue of marriage, Okaz said.
"All rights that a man has, she has the same," Okaz quoted Manea as saying. "There is no guardianship for anything, except in marriage, which has a condition that her guardian must approve."
Manea is something of an unlikely ally for women's rights activists. The cleric said in 2009 that the excessive "movement and jumping" needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity.
His comments on guardianship were welcomed by Thuraya Obaid, a female member of the advisory Shura Council.
"He’s presenting Islam as it should be presented," she said. "Because of who he is, it is a significant statement."
Families should also provide women the same financial support that they give to their brothers, Manea said. He did not elaborate on how decision-making should work after a woman is married, at which point her husband becomes her guardian.
Since the report by Human Rights Watch was released in July, supporters of greater women's rights have been lobbying for change on social media and posting graffiti on walls around Saudi cities, using the hashtag "Saudi women call for an end to guardianship."
Only the government-appointed clerics associated with the Council of Senior Scholars are allowed to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions. Their interpretations of Islamic law form the basis of Saudi Arabia's legal system.
Neither cleric issued his statement on guardianship as a formal fatwa, but Manea's comment nonetheless reverberated as an unusually liberal opinion for a senior scholar.
(Reporting by Katie Paul; editing by Sami Aboudi and Ralph Boulton)