Long-promised new laws allowing Saudi women over 21 to travel without permission from a male guardian came into effect Tuesday.
The rules were announced in a royal decree of sweeping reforms last month. It means adult women can move feely and exercise more control over family matters.
The move ends a restriction that drew international ire and forced women to flee the Muslim-majority country. Constraints on Saudi women’s ability to travel had long been a symbol of the country’s fundamentalist Islamic rule and profoundly patriarchal society.
“The passport department has started receiving applications for women aged 21 and above to issue or renew passports and to travel outside the kingdom without permission,” the department said on Twitter.
Women in the kingdom have always required permission from their male “guardians” — husband, father and other male relatives — for these tasks, a restriction that drew international censure.
The reforms were widely celebrated in the kingdom, but they also drew backlash from arch-conservatives, many of whom shared old video sermons on social media by Saudi clerics advocating guardianship laws.
Some also denounced the change as “unIslamic” in a society that traditionally sees men as protectors of women.
The changes also grant women for the first time the right to register child birth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.
A Saudi newspaper reported that more than 1,000 women in the country’s Eastern Province had left Saudi Arabia on Monday without their guardian’s permission, in what appeared to be an early implementation of the new rules.
Saudi Arabia’s recent societal changes are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) unprecedented effort to enhance women’s rights as part of sweeping reforms to modernize the country.
The new laws, however, came after the MBS administration launched a crackdown last year on women activists fighting to end the country’s male guardianship system.