New law allows Saudi women to travel without male consent

Saudi Arabia ends its guardianship policy, loosening restrictions on women's rights. Now women can apply for passports, register marriage and births.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP/File
Saudi women wait in line to ride go carts at a road safety event for female drivers launched at the Riyadh Park Mall on June 22, 2018. A new law passed on Aug. 2, 2019, allows women to travel freely, without needing consent from a male guardian.

Saudi Arabia on Friday published new laws that loosen restrictions on women by allowing all citizens – women and men alike – to apply for a passport and travel freely, ending a long-standing guardianship policy that had controlled women's freedom of movement.

The development is a potential game-changer for Saudi women's rights.

The kingdom's legal system has long been criticized because it treated adult women as minors, requiring they have a man's consent to obtain a passport or travel abroad. Often a woman's male guardian is her father or husband, and in some cases a woman's son.

The changes were widely celebrated by Saudis on Twitter, with many posting memes showing people dashing to the airport with luggage and others hailing the crown prince believed to be the force behind these moves. But the changes also drew backlash from conservatives, who posted clips of senior Saudi clerics in past years arguing in favor of guardianship laws.

Other changes issued in the decrees allow women to register a marriage, divorce, or a child's birth, and obtain official family documents, which could ease hurdles women faced in obtaining a national identity card and enrolling their children in school.

Women are now also allowed to be legal guardians of their children, a right previously held only by men.

Still in place, however, are rules that require male consent for a woman to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter, or marry. Women, unlike men, still cannot pass on citizenship to their children and cannot provide consent for their children to marry.

Under the kingdom's guardianship system, women essentially relied on the "good will" and whims of male relatives to determine the course of their lives. There were cases, for example, of young Saudi women whose parents are divorced, but whose father is the legal guardian. Some women were unable to accept scholarships to study abroad because they did not have permission to travel.

Amnesty International said Friday a lot remains to be done for women's rights in Saudi Arabia but that the new laws could ease the guardianship system. Guardianship laws have "been a stifling system in the daily lives of women in Saudi Arabia," said Lynn Malouf, Mideast's research director at Amnesty.

"These reforms really are a testament to the work of the brave activism and the suffering and the ordeals" Saudi women and men fought for in their calls for reform, she added.

Saudi women fleeing domestic abuse and the guardianship system occasionally drew international attention to their plight, as Rahaf al-Qunun did before Canada granted her asylum. The stories of runaway women have created a flurry of negative headlines for the kingdom.

To leave the country, some Saudi women say they had to hack into their father's phone and change the settings on a government app to allow themselves permission to leave the country. There were calls in Washington for Google and Apple to block access to the app entirely.

In a lengthy study of Saudi male guardianship laws in 2016, Human Rights Watch criticized it as "system that was ripe for abuse."

The new rules, approved by King Salman and his Cabinet, allow any person 21 and older to travel abroad without prior consent and any citizen to apply for a Saudi passport on their own.

The decrees, issued Wednesday, were made public before dawn Friday in the kingdom's official weekly Um al-Qura gazette. It wasn't immediately clear if the new rules go into effect immediately.

A number of sweeping changes have been promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he drives an ambitious economic reform plan that encourages more women to enter the workforce. He was behind lifting the ban on women driving last year, loosening rules on gender segregation, and bringing concerts and movie theaters to the country.

He has also led a simultaneous crackdown on activists, including detaining the country's leading women's rights activists who had demanded an end to the very male guardianship rules now being curtailed. The women, among them Loujain al-Hathloul, are facing trial and allege they were tortured in prison.

The crown prince continues to face widespread international criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement by the prince but its own investigation acknowledged the operation was planned by two of the prince's top aides.

Saudi newspaper Arab News noted that in the segment on travel, the new decree were written in gender-neutral language rather than outright stating that women no longer need male consent.

News of the changes had been teased in state-linked Saudi media for weeks, possibly to ready the public and gauge reaction.

The way the decrees were announced and the language used signal how sensitive these moves are among conservatives in the country. For years, state-backed preachers told the Saudi public that women should not travel longer than a night alone, claiming this was rooted in Islamic practice.

Other Muslim countries, however, don't have similar restrictions on women's travel. Still, Saudi clerics have supported the imposition of male guardianship based on a Quran verse that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women.

Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Quranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Fadi Tawil in Beirut contributed to this report.

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