Saudi women are now allowed to travel the world freely.
After reports in July that Saudi Arabia might ease laws requiring women to seek consent from their “male guardian” before traveling internationally, the country announced a new rule on Friday allowing women over the age of 21 to apply for a passport without authorization, the BBC reports. The rule also allows women to register births, marriages, and divorces.
The country maintains a male guardianship system that previously required women of all ages to obtain the consent of a designated male guardian — typically a husband, father, brother, or even son — in order to make major decisions. There are currently a number of rules, some enforced by society and others by law, that restrict women’s freedom, making them seek a man's permission for actions such as leaving a domestic abuse shelter and opening a bank account.
Human rights groups have pushed back against the country’s restrictive guardianship laws for years, arguing that they make women second-class citizens and deny them basic human and social rights.
“Why should any woman need guardianship over traveling, working, or getting married? Many women are being treated unfairly by their spouses, brothers, and fathers who take advantage of guardianship,” Farah, a 30-year-old woman from Jeddah, told the Wall Street Journal.
The country’s crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has recently assumed a greater role in governing the country and has brought about some women's rights reforms. Women were granted the right to drive for the first time last year. They had previously been banned, and most had to rely on a male family member or a chauffeur to get around. They are now also able to pursue higher education and employment opportunities of their own accord.
“There is no question that the leadership, the government, and the people want to see this system changed. The current discussion is about how to make this happen as soon as possible without causing a stir,” a Saudi royal aware of the planned changes told the Wall Street Journal in July.
The reforms have been welcomed by many activists; however, the crown prince and the country stand accused of several other human rights violations, including violent suppression of political dissent.
Regarding the guardianship laws, the crown prince has previously said that it is the place of Islamic scholars to study and determine if they should be revised, rather than committing to creating change on this particular front himself.
However, the government created a committee to review and revise the guardianship laws earlier this year. The change to the travel law is due to the work of the committee, a senior government official told the Wall Street Journal.
"If fully implemented [this is] a big step in letting adult Saudi women take control of their own lives," Kristin Diwan, from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, told the AFP.
Saudi women have expressed mixed feelings, with some saying they are hopeful that the country will take steps toward becoming more progressive.
“It is absolutely crucial if we want to move forward as a country,” Huda, a 30-year-old from Jeddah told the Wall Street Journal.
Others remain skeptical about the government’s intentions.
“Is this a publicity stunt?” Ruba, a 29-year-old communications professional in the Eastern Province, asked. “I need to read the fine print. Where’s the catch, you know?”
And there is a catch: Even with this particular law revised, numerous other guardianship laws will continue to regulate women’s choices and life decisions. And even if the government chooses to modernize its laws in the coming years in favor of women’s rights, the country’s societal customs are still deeply entrenched, and attitudes may take much longer to evolve.
“I come from a family that is liberal within limits. But I have never and will never accept to be my own guardian,” one woman wrote on Twitter under the handle Mrs. Noora.
Even so, it remains undeniable for many women that more progressive laws will change their lives in various ways, opening them to new opportunities.
“I am hopeful,” Huda said.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 12, 2019. It has been updated to reflect the official rule change.