Dubai - 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 required women to 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 Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is 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 favour 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, being unable to accept scholarships to study abroad because they did not have permission to travel.
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 the Crown Prince 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 theatres to the country.