RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's system of male "guardianship" or wide-ranging control over women lies at the heart of rights abuse in the conservative Islamic state, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.
But a government spokesman said Saudi Arabia was disappointed the report had failed to highlight efforts to improve women's status and confused tradition with state policy.
"We agree with some points and we are working on that as a commission for the government, but we don't agree with the generalisation," said Zoheir al-Harithi, spokesman for Saudi's Human Rights Commission.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world. Tradition and the Islamic clerical establishment restrict women's movement, preventing them from driving cars.
Saudi women must usually obtain permission from a "guardian" -- father, husband, or son -- to work, travel, study, marry, or get access to healthcare, HRW said in the study, "Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia".
"The Saudi government sacrifices basic human rights to maintain male control over women," Farida Deif, Human Rights Watch women's rights researcher for the Middle East, said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"Saudi women won't make any progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies."
Since King Abdullah came to power in 2005, the government has said it supports a reform agenda but that it cannot enforce changes if significant sections of society continue to resist.
Clerics of the state-sanctioned brand of Sunni Islam, a strict form often termed Wahhabism, see the "muhrim", or guardian of women's honour, as central to the system of social and moral control in the country.
The rules -- the subject of heated national debate -- are enforced by the judiciary and a morals police body, both of which are run by Wahhabi clerics.
The government has allowed Human Rights Watch unprecedented access over the past two years, and more women have been able to enter the workforce. This year new regulations allowed women to stay in hotels without a guardian.
"The authorities essentially treat adult women like legal minors who are not entitled to authority over their lives and well-being," the HRW report says, citing a list of complaints based on interviews with about 100 women.
It says women cannot open bank accounts for children, enrol them in school, obtain school files, or travel with their children without written permission from the child's father.
Women are also prevented from accessing government agencies that have not established female sections unless they have a male representative, and the need to establish separate office space discourages firms from hiring women, it said.
"We know some customs and traditions prevent women having their complete rights, but you cannot say they are 'legal minors'," said the Saudi HRC's Harithi. "They are doctors, teach in universities, are elected to the chambers of commerce."
The report can be accessed at www.hrw.org.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Catherine Evans)