Saudi Arabia Chips Away at Oppressive System by Granting Women Travel Rights

Saudi Arabia Chips Away at Oppressive System by Granting Women Travel Rights


BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the surface, the new regulations Saudi Arabia announced early Friday did not seem like much. In dense, bureaucratic language, they granted all Saudis over the age of 21 the right to handle their families’ affairs, while officials said that all adults could obtain passports and travel on their own.

But for gender relations in the kingdom, the new regulations were an earthquake, because for the first time they granted women the kind of rights that had previously been under the control of male relatives.

“It is a great breakthrough,” Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, said on Friday. “It was bound to happen, but these changes are always done at a time when the people are more apt to accept the changes, otherwise they will fail.”

The new regulations that arrived under Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were the most significant weakening yet of Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” system, a longstanding tangle of laws, regulations and social customs that rights campaigners have long criticized as oppressing Saudi women.

As a practical matter, the changes will most likely take time to trickle down to individual households and to women. As a symbolic matter, however, they are pivotal.

Muna AbuSulayman, a well-known Saudi media personality, posted on Twitter overnight that she was so elated that she could not sleep. “This change means women are in a way in full control of their legal destiny,” she wrote.

Other Saudi women’s Twitter feeds crackled with jubilant posts. Memes of women praising the crown prince and ululating in celebration danced around the internet.

The guardianship changes were announced as part of a broader drive by Prince Mohammed to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and to open up society. Since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015, Prince Mohammed, 33, has begun initiatives aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil, confronting Iran and loosening the kingdom’s notoriously strict social customs.

In recent years, he has pushed for more women to enter the work force, removed the power to arrest from the kingdom’s religious police and granted women the right to drive, billing the moves as essential for the insular Islamic kingdom to progress and to build its economy.

But accompanying that wider social opening have been riskier moves that raised questions about whether Prince Mohammed’s brash leadership style would destabilize the kingdom, and the Middle East as a whole. His forces are bogged down and accused of war crimes in Yemen. The murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year drew global condemnation. And waves of arrests have scooped up clerics, intellectuals, royals, businessmen and even some activists who had campaigned for the end to the driving ban and the guardianship system.

Those arrests, and the wider intolerance of dissent or criticism under Prince Mohammed, made it hard to fully gauge public reaction to the changes, but many Saudi women cheered them as liberating.

Ms. al-Helaissi, the Shura Council member, said she did not expect them to have a great immediate effect on most families, but she said the biggest beneficiaries would be divorced or widowed women who could now run their family affairs more easily.

Though the regulations allowing women to register family matters may appear routine, they will make an enormous difference for some women, such as those who are separated from their husbands and those who need to navigate the bureaucracy on behalf of their children, said Adam Coogle, a Saudi expert at Human Rights Watch.

In the past, he said, separated women have reported being punished or extorted by husbands who would not help obtain birth certificates or other bureaucratic records for children.

The regulations were approved by the Saudi cabinet and appeared to include granting all Saudis, regardless of gender, the right to obtain passports, travel and register births, marriages and divorces. They also barred discrimination in employment on the basis of gender, age or disability.

A statement released by the Saudi Embassy in Washington said that the new regulations regarding travel documents would go into effect by the end of August. It was unclear whether that applied to the other new regulations, as well.

It was not clear why the new regulations were announced now, but the kingdom most likely hoped that some good news would draw attention from the foreign criticism of its human rights record, which amplified after the murder of Mr. Khashoggi last year. It has also faced frequent criticism of its prosecution of the war in Yemen, leading to growing calls by American lawmakers to cut support for the Saudi war effort.

A number of young Saudi women have fled abroad in recent years, seeking refuge from abusive family members and a legal system they do not trust to protect them — and drawing unwanted attention to the guardianship system.

Ms. AbuSulayman said on Twitter that while her father had never put obstacles in her path, she had gone so far as to consider moving abroad to avoid being subject to the guardianship of her brothers.

But now, she said, her eldest daughter — who, under the current system, would have had to obtain her father’s permission to renew her passport this year — would grow up without restrictions on her right to travel.

“She will never know about this episode in our nation’s life,” Ms. AbuSulayman wrote. “A generation growing up completely free and equal to their brothers.”

Critics of the guardianship laws hailed the changes as genuinely significant. They called on the kingdom to push further by allowing women to marry, live on their own and exit state facilities like prison and domestic violence shelters without consent from their guardians.

And they noted a distinct irony in the announcement. Even as the kingdom loosens the cuffs of guardianship, about a dozen female Saudi activists who spoke out about reforming the system remain imprisoned on charges related to their activism on women’s issues.

Some have been detained for more than a year, undergoing court proceedings wrapped in secrecy, and rights groups have said that they have reported being tortured and sexually harassed while in prison.

“As long as the women activists are still being tried and charged for calling for these same reforms, well, we’re still within the same social contract,” said Lynn Maalouf, the director of Middle East research for Amnesty International.



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