Saudi women gain new freedoms, including right to travel, access to work opportunities

The way in which the decrees were announced and the language used in the decrees signal how sensitive the moves are among conservatives in the country.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Saudi women arrive at Abha Airport in the popular Saudi mountain resort of the same name. (AFP)
Moving ahead. Saudi women arrive at Abha Airport in the popular Saudi mountain resort of the same name. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Saudi authorities have granted women more control over their lives and family matters, including the right to travel without the permission of a male guardian and equal access to work opportunities.

Royal decrees published August 2 in the official gazette stipulated that a Saudi passport would be issued to any citizen who applies for it and that any person older than 21 years does not need permission to travel.

The amendments to regulations also grant women the right to register childbirth, marriage or divorce, to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to minor children.

Riyadh has long endured international censure over the status of women. Rights groups said Saudi women were often treated like second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian — father, husband, brother or son — for important decisions throughout their lives.

The decrees expanded work opportunities for women, who represent a large segment of unemployed Saudis. They stipulated that all citizens have the

right to work without discrimination based on gender, disability or age.

The move is believed to have been led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who has eased social restrictions, such as lifting a driving ban for women last year, to open the conservative Muslim kingdom and transform the country’s economy.

The changes eroding the heavily criticised male guardianship system came at a time of heightened scrutiny over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

They were widely celebrated by Saudis on social media, including with memes showing people dashing to the airport with luggage and others hailing the 33-year-old crown prince.

Muna AbuSulayman, a former talk show host, took to Twitter along with thousands of other Saudi women to celebrate what many said was a new era. “A generation growing up completely free and equal to their brothers,” AbuSulayman said, referring to the freedom to travel.

The changes drew backlash from conservatives, who posted clips of senior Saudi clerics in past years arguing in favour of guardianship laws.

“We are a Muslim community, not a Western one, may God keep our daughters safe from all evils,” Sarah, a Saudi woman in her late 40s who declined to give her surname, told Reuters. “Imagine if your girls grow up and leave you and don’t return, would you be happy?”

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, cannot pass on citizenship to their children and cannot provide consent for their children to marry.

Saudi women fleeing domestic abuse and the guardianship system occasionally drew international attention to their plight, as 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun did before Canada granted her asylum. The stories of runaway women created negative headlines for the kingdom.

The way in which the decrees were announced and the language used in the decrees signal how sensitive the moves are among conservatives in the country. For years, state-backed preachers told the Saudi public that women should not travel longer than a night alone and that this was rooted in Islamic practice.

While transforming the lives of many women, critics said the reforms will be cosmetic for others until the kingdom abolishes the guardianship system that gives men arbitrary authority over their female relatives.

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