Saudi Arabia will allow women to travel abroad without the approval of a male “guardian,” the government said Thursday, ending a restriction that caused international censorship and caused extreme attempts to flee the kingdom.
The historical reform erodes the old system of guardianship that turns adult women into legal minors and allows their “tutors” – husband, father and other male relatives – to exercise arbitrary authority over them.
The decision, after years of campaigning by activists, comes after high-profile attempts by women to escape their guardians despite a series of reforms that include a historic decree last year that overturned the only ban of the world’s motorists.
“A passport will be granted to any Saudi citizen who submits an application,” said a government ruling published in the official Umm al-Qura bulletin.
The regulation effectively allows women over 21 to obtain passports and leave the country without the permission of their guardian, the official Okaz newspaper and other local media reported, citing the main authorities.
Women in the kingdom have long required the permission of their male “guardians” to marry, renew their passports or leave the country.
The reform gives women greater autonomy and mobility, said pro-government newspaper Saudi Gazette, which praised the decision as “a big leap for Saudi women.”
The decision was received with joy on social networks, with the hashtag “No custody on the travel of women” gaining strength and many publishing humorous memes of women fleeing with suitcases and were persecuted by men.
“This change means that women have full control of their legal destiny.”
The changes announced on Thursday also give Saudi women what has long been a male right: the right to officially register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be recognized as guardians of minor children.
Repression and reform
The reform occurs when Saudi Arabia faces greater international scrutiny of its human rights record, including an ongoing trial against women activists who have long demanded that the guardianship system be dismantled.
That includes Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading human rights activist who turned 30 this week in a Saudi prison, activists said.
Together with a widespread repression against dissent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, heads a broad momentum of liberalization that aims to transform the oil state, much criticized for its treatment of women.
Its reforms include the much-celebrated decision to allow women to drive in June of last year, to allow women to attend football games alongside men and to take on jobs that were once outside the narrow limits of the traditional roles of gender.
Saudi driving ban ends
But as they transform the lives of many women, critics said the reforms will be cosmetic for many others until the kingdom eliminates the “custody” system.
Some have undertaken dangerous attempts to escape abroad despite the reforms.
They include Rahaf al-Qunun, 18, whose live asylum request tweeted from a Bangkok hotel in January after she fled from her Saudi family got worldwide attention.
Later, two Saudi sisters who sought refuge in Hong Kong for what they called family abuse were allowed to move to a third country that was not named for their safety.
And later, two other Saudi sisters fled to Georgia.
The latest reform, which weakens but does not completely dismantle the guardianship system, could lead to family confrontations in deeply patriarchal society, observers warn.
Saudi officials have expressed their commitment to fight the abuse of guardianship, but have warned that the system can only be dismantled gradually to avoid a violent reaction from conservative archivists.
In a unique case last year, a Saudi court ruled in favor of a 24-year-old woman who challenged her father’s decision not to allow her to have a passport. But until Thursday’s ruling, she would still have required her permission to travel.