DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — 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 new laws, a potential game-changer for Saudi women’s rights, are to go into effect by the end of the month.
The kingdom’s legal system has long been criticized because it treated adult women as minors, requiring they 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 the 33-year-old crown prince 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 favor 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.
Amnesty International said Friday a lot remains to be done for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia but that the new laws could ease the guardianship system. Guardianship laws have “been a stifling system in the daily lives of women in Saudi Arabia,” said Lynn Malouf, Mideast’s research director at Amnesty.
“These reforms really are a testament to the work of the brave activism and the suffering and the ordeals” Saudi women and men fought for in their calls for reform, she added.
A number of sweeping changes have been promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman 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 theaters to the country.
He has also led a simultaneous crackdown on activists, including detaining the country’s leading women’s rights activists who had demanded an end to the very male guardianship rules now being curtailed. The women, among them Loujain al-Hathloul, are facing trial and allege they were tortured in prison.
Other Muslim countries don’t have similar restrictions on women’s travel. Still, Saudi clerics have supported the imposition of male guardianship based on a Quran verse that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women.
Other Islamic scholars argue this misinterprets fundamental Quranic concepts like equality and respect between the sexes.