Saudi Arabia Allows Women over 21 to Travel Without Male Permission

Saudi women walk out of a shopping mall as they wait for their driver to pick them up in Riyadh 14 June 2005. Saudi women hope to follow in the footsteps of counterparts in neighboring Kuwait, where women were granted full political rights and a woman minister was appointed. Saudi …
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty

Saudi Arabia passed a new law allowing women over the age of 21 to travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission, the Sunni kingdom announced this week.

The move ended a restriction that drew international ire and forced women to flee the 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 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports:

The new laws, published Friday by the kingdom’s official legal record, allow women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and leave the country without securing the consent of a guardian. The amendments to travel rules, the labor law and civil-status law will come into effect by the end of this month, earlier than previously expected.

The move to change guardianship follows international scrutiny after a series of young Saudi women fled the country and sought asylum, complaining that the kingdom’s laws and customs made them slaves to male relatives. …The custom of giving women a male guardian for life is a deeply held tradition in Saudi Arabia and is unlikely to change overnight for the large majority of the country despite the law.

Saudi Arabian officials reportedly announced the changes on Thursday.

The Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency conceded that the reforms weaken, but do not entirely abolish the guardianship, system.

According to the news outlet, the changes “also grant Saudi women what has long been a male entitlement — the right to officially register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be recognized as a guardian to children who are minors.”

Saudi Arabia’s recent 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.

Saudi Arabia is facing heightened scrutiny over its human rights record, including its ongoing trial of the women activists.

Despite the new laws, women must still obtain permission from a guardian to get married, enroll in the army, exit a prison, or even leave a shelter for victims of abuse.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly gone farther than any other Muslim country in codifying the guardianship system into law.

Under MBS, however, the Saudi government granted women the right to drive last year, enroll in the security forces with the consent of a male guardian, open their own business without male permission, and attend soccer games alongside men.

MBS has also curbed the power of its feared religious police force known for harassing and even jailing women for how they dressed.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International have accused MBS of arbitrarily arresting women rights activists as part of a crackdown on dissent and opposition that began last year.

Women activists in Saudi Arabia have reportedly faced sexual harassment, torture, and other abuses while imprisoned and during their interrogation.

The Sunni kingdom has long used force to silence women who dare stand up to its unjust law and patriarchal gender customs.

U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed support for the Saudi crown prince’s unprecedented reform efforts.

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