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World & Nation

Saudi Arabia adopts landmark changes for women, including an end to travel restrictions

Saudi women
Under newly adopted changes, all Saudi nationals 21 or older will be allowed to get a passport. A rule registering wives and children under a man’s passport has been removed.
(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

Consider the life of a woman in Saudi Arabia.

By law, her husband, father or other male relative controls where she works and where she travels. She can’t get her own passport or register her marriage — or divorce — or even the birth of her own child.

Those days will soon be over.

On Friday, buried within the dull legalese of a weekly gazette published by the Saudi government, much of the kingdom’s wilayah, or guardianship, system was abolished, heralding a new era for women in a society that has long viewed them as legal minors.

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“These new regulations are history in the making,” Reema bint Bandar al Saud, the country’s first female ambassador to the U.S., declared on Twitter early Friday. “They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society.”

Any Saudi over 21 will be able to obtain, renew and use a passport for travel. The change will free women from the old requirement that men grant them permission, which was often done over a government-run phone app called Absher.

In an even more dramatic change of particular benefit to widows and divorcees, the new regulations also allow anybody over 21, male or female, to be a head of household and register births, deaths, marriages and divorces and have custody over minors.

The amendments laying out the new rules also state that all Saudis “are equal in the right to work” regardless of sex, handicap, age or other criteria, and that employers are barred from firing women or threatening to do so during their pregnancy or maternity leave, as long they are not absent for more than six months over the course of a year.

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“This is another leap toward treating women as adults, who do not need the permission of a male guardian and are equal citizens in terms of rights and status,” writer Maha Akeel said in a phone interview.

“The essential thing here is that these issues are finally being addressed and resolved, and I expect the discussion will continue over other issues and details affecting not only women but society as a whole,” she said.

On Twitter, the kingdom’s most popular social media platform, many Saudis shared Akeel’s optimism. They celebrated the changes under the headings “The guardianship system has fallen” and “When will you travel?”

One posted a clip of the American singer Lesley Gore performing the emancipation anthem “You Don’t Own Me.”

The amendments came after a Cabinet decision and a royal decree from King Salman.

Yet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, is thought to be their driving force.

Over the last four years, Mohammed has spearheaded a high-intensity charm offensive aimed at making the kingdom a mecca for investment and reducing its reliance on both its gargantuan oil wealth and the foreign labor that wealth has attracted.

In that time, the prince has also pushed through changes in the kingdom’s social order that seemed out of reach only a short time ago.

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He defanged and then removed the country’s notorious religious police, and allowed the opening of cinemas and other entertainment venues for the first time in decades. He overturned a ban on women driving last year.

Yet it was unclear how much those changes mattered as long as the guardianship system was in place. Over the last two years, the Saudi government has been embarrassed by a social media campaign waged by women who had fled the kingdom to escape men they said were abusing their guardianship powers.

Mohammed’s reform drive has also been set back by his own brutal repression of criticism.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a onetime government insider turned critic of the prince’s policies, was savagely killed last year at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, a murder widely blamed on Mohammed.

The Saudi ministry of information said the new law on travel documents would go into effect by the end of this month. It was unclear when the other new amendments would take effect.

Some elements of the guardianship system remain, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Women still need approval to marry. They still cannot live on their own. If they go to a shelter, they can’t leave without a male guardian receiving them.

Implementing the new amendments could also require changes in other legal processes. The phone app Absher, which is used for a variety of services, including passport renewal and driver’s license applications, will have to be overhauled.

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“The regulations now say a woman isn’t forced to live with her husband,” Coogle said. “But he can still theoretically bring a claim of disobedience against his wife to court.”

“So how will this work? Will the judge cite this change to the civil status law and say you have no right to demand this, or base his judgment on sharia law, where a woman has to obey her husband?”

The government will also have to find a way to stamp out discrimination in the workplace, Coogle said: “It’s not enough just to publish the regulation. They need a mechanism to enforce it.”

Another spoiler for the occasion are the activists, including longtime champions of women’s rights, who remain imprisoned. One of them, Loujain Hathloul, is reported to have been tortured by one of the prince’s top lieutenants. Critics noted the irony that the amendments were issued on her birthday.

That didn’t prevent Hathloul’s sister, Alia, from celebrating.

Loujain, she tweeted, had spent her best years in prison for women’s causes. “Thanks to this woman and others, the dream is a reality,” Alia wrote.

“But now, don’t forget your heroes.”


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