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Women in Saudi Arabia Gain Right to Travel – Does This Mean Equal Rights?

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Saudi women arriving at Abha airport in the popular mountain resort of the same name in the southwest of Saudi Arabia, June 13, 2019. Photo: Fayez Nureldine / AFP ©AFP ⁃ Fayez Nureldine

After an announcement on the Jawazat website (Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Passports) declaring that women would from now on be issued individual travel authorizations, Saudi women are taking advantage of an easing of regulations by traveling outside of the country by themselves. The Saudi Gazette reported on August 20, 2019 that within just a few hours of the introduction of the new regulation, more than 1,000 unaccompanied women had crossed entry points of the Eastern Province.

At the beginning of August, royal decrees were issued that effectively ended the need for women over the age of 21 to obtain permission from a male relative to apply for a passport or to travel abroad. The announcements were hailed as a giant leap for Saudi women and signalled that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is moving beyond its notorious guardianship system.

The guardianship system – also known as “wilaya” – is a network of laws that require female citizens to beseech the permission of a male relative or guardian before making certain life and lifestyle decisions, including those related to legal proceedings, finances, medical procedures and work.

As well as the freedom to travel, the royal decrees also introduced new rights in Saudi Arabia to register marriages, divorces and births and make family documents. There was also reportedly a new concession to allow students to study abroad without a mahram (a legal escort). These reforms are substantial in providing women with the liberty to get an identity card more easily or to be able to access further educational opportunities.

The new developments follow a historic move last year that ended a long-time ban on women driving in the Gulf nation, part of a series of efforts by the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), to attempt to modernise the country, such as reining in the morality police and easing restrictions on gender mixing, although incremental reforms have been ongoing for over a decade.

“Lifting the ban on women driving last year was a real PR exercise,” says Sue Eedle, a researcher with the Saudi advocacy group ALQST, speaking to Fanack Chronicle, “It was crucial to some women, those able to afford to or whose family allowed them to drive. For others, it was not necessarily such a great win.”

Eedle says reforms have been oversold to some extent, with MBS playing to external pressure and trying to persuade young people at home that they are getting the opportunities they want while appeasing internal elements resistant to some of the reforms.

The Kingdom’s barriers to Saudi women being granted full and comparable rights to men has for some time been in the sight of rights groups advocating for the full revocation of the guardianship system.

According to Human Rights Watch, every woman in the country, no matter her status, is adversely affected by the guardianship laws and for Saudi Arabia to realise its Vision 2030 plan, it needs to eliminate the system. For instance, only 20 percent of women in Saudi Arabia work, but 50 percent of the population are women. Bridging this gap will fuel societal and economic gains for the country, according to international market analyst company Mercer.

Despite the current reforms, Saudi guardianship laws are still far from eliminated. A woman must still seek permission to get married or to lease a flat. She would also not be able to pass on her Saudi citizenship to her children if she married a non-Saudi citizen, which has caused critics to say that the new rules are not extensive enough.

They also come into conflict with current norms and other regulations. For instance, men can still file complaints of filial disobedience, for example if a daughter disobeys their order. It is also unclear how the new rules might be enforced if men refuse to comply with the new regulations and forbid women to travel, which suggests that a wider cultural shift is also needed.

In order for reforms to have a meaningful effect, advocates like ALQST say the law must also be on the side of the women. When abused women have fled abroad, it’s the embassies that have helped round them up and send them home, while the police have often sided with the parents.

For instance, despite gradual reform, the government-run app Absher still allows men to track their wives’ activities, including travel abroad, which would in effect tip off men to the location of women, should they decide to travel without permission or without telling their husbands. Human Rights Watch reported that as of August 21, the app still had not been updated to allow women to apply for passports online, thereby allowing male guardians to reject their female relatives’ travel application. It also noted however that the Saudi Passports Department confirmed on social media that women over 21 can apply for or renew passports in person at their offices before the Absher platform is updated.

Previous advances in the Kingdom have also attracted mixed feedback. There has been some liberalization in the workplace, although at the same time a lot of segregation towards Saudi women remains, with mixed workplaces still being contentious, Eedle says.

Eedle also notes that for every reform comes “obedient sycophancy.”

“People are set up to praise and thank Muhammad bin Salman on social media,” says Eedle, with the whole thing reading as if women now have all their rights, which is far from the case They still need a male guardian’s permission to marry, for example.

Women also still need male permission to open a bank account, leave prison, use a government-run shelter or file a lawsuit.

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system also takes hold in a context of wider criticism, as the country has been accused of a number of human rights abuses, such as suppressing dissent and freedom of speech. The petrostate has also come under fire for its vague laws, prosecution and arbitrary detention of minors for protest-related crimes.

Underlying these reforms is the fact that many women who have been campaigning for years are still languishing in prison, including several who have been tortured. “That puts the reforming drive into perspective,” says Eedle.

Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, has called the recent advances a bittersweet victory, emphasising that “courageous Saudi women who pushed for these changes remain behind bars or face unfair trials.”

Loujain Al-Hathloul, for instance, was arrested in 2014 for driving. She was released but imprisoned again in a wider crackdown against women’s activism, just before the driving ban was lifted. The women detained were publicly accused of treason but not presented with any charge.

How reforms will be implemented is still to be seen, and this week was the first glimpse of how the new provision for women to apply for their own passports would work in practice.

With teething problems and complaints already being apparent, the devil will be in the detail, Eedle says, “It will be interesting to see how it will play out.”

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