Saudi Arabia Gives Women Travel Rights in Major Policy Shakeup
Women walk through the inside of the Kingdom Centre shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Saudi Arabia Gives Women Travel Rights in Major Policy Shakeup

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia will allow women to leave the country without permission from a male relative, a major step toward ending a restrictive guardianship system that has been heavily criticized at home and abroad.

The change was included in extensive amendments to laws governing travel documents, civil status, labor and social insurance approved by the cabinet this week and published in the official gazette on Friday.

They will become law from the end of August and allow women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel without securing the consent of a guardian, the same rules that apply to Saudi men, according to a statement from the kingdom’s Center for Government Communication.

“These new regulations are history in the making,” Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed ambassador to the U.S., said on Twitter. “They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put loosening social restrictions at the heart of his economic transformation plan for Saudi Arabia, which relies on diversifying away from oil and attracting foreign investment. The government has clipped the powers of the kingdom’s infamous religious police, relaxed gender segregation and lifted a ban on women driving.

Behind Bars

At the same time, though, authorities have clamped down on domestic criticism and arrested some of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists.

Many of the women who fought for an end to guardianship are banned from travel or are behind bars, accused of undermining the state and having ties to foreign entities. They include Loujain Al-Hathoul, an activist who turned 30 in jail this week.

And while the new policy will be welcomed by many Saudis, it will likely frustrate some conservatives and lead to clashes within families. As recently as 2016, the kingdom’s top religious leader, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Ash-Sheikh, branded calls to end guardianship a “crime” that “contradicts religion."

The amendments remove language that dictates a woman’s place of residence is with her husband and allow women to report marriages, divorces and births similarly to men, Saudi newspaper Okaz reported. The labor law changes will protect women against workplace discrimination and guarantee equal pay, the Saudi embassy in Washington said in a statement.

Long Campaign

Saudi women’s rights activists have campaigned for years against the conservative Islamic kingdom’s guardianship system, which renders women legal dependents of a male relative throughout their lives.

Women currently need permission from their guardian -- typically a father or husband, but sometimes a brother or son -- to marry, apply for a passport, leave the country and even to exit prison or detention centers when their sentences are over.

In recent years, a number of women have fled Saudi Arabia while their families were on vacation and claimed asylum, often alleging abuse.

Saudis who support weakening or abolishing guardianship rushed to celebrate and crack jokes on social media, posting videos of women leaving their homes with suitcases.

“A thousand congratulations to our girls, and no tears are shed for those who opposed this in order to protect their interests and authority,” Hamsa Sonosi, a Saudi writer and researcher, wrote on Twitter.

‘You’re The Problem’

Sonosi and others praised Prince Mohammed for the decision, sharing a photo of a woman hugging a portrait of him.

Twenty-six-year-old Haya said the guardianship system kept women who didn’t enjoy the kind of privileges she had “oppressed and imprisoned within their homes.”

“I’m grateful for everyone who fought for this for years, especially the women who are unfortunately sitting behind bars,” she said.

Raja Al-Mutairi, a Saudi writer, addressed men who might be distressed by the decision. “If you don’t trust your wife, daughter, sister or mother and feel like they’ll leave you the moment guardianship ends: My dear friend, your problem is bigger than guardianship ending,” Al-Mutairi said on Twitter. “You’re the problem.”

‘Genuine’ Reforms

The government had paved the way for the change over the past few years, saying that guardianship was under review and allowing a certain amount of debate.

It left in place some restrictions on women, such as the requirement that they get permission from a male guardian to marry -- a rule that’s also applied in many neighboring countries -- and there are several gray areas left unresolved.

Guardians sometimes file a legal charge of “escape” against women who leave their homes, and parents can file “disobedience” charges against adult children of either gender.

The amendments are “much-needed reforms that will improve women’s lives greatly,” but they should go hand-in-hand with the abolition of such cases, said Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies.

“The continuous detention and harassment of women activists doesn’t reflect an intent of genuine reforms,” she said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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