In a landmark announcement on last Friday, 2nd August, Saudi Arabia has allowed women to apply for a passport without approval or consent from male guardians and women above the age of 21 to travel outside the country without guardian consent. This new rule was released in the kingdom’s official weekly Um al-Qura gazette which said that all citizens who apply for passport will be issued regardless of gender and guardian approval. The rule also stated that all citizens above the age of 21 could travel freely within and outside of Saudi Arabia. This marks a significant shift as up till now women could not exit the country or obtain or renew a passport without a male guardian’s consent. Women typically did not even have passports and national id cards unless their family had got them made for university exam purposes.
In the new regulations, women have also been given the right to register birth, marriage and divorce without any relatives’ approval. Saudi women as well as human rights activists all over the world are rejoicing as this is a significant step in the quest to get equal rights for women in Saudi Arabia. Before this lifting of guardian-consent requirement for travel, Saudi women were very much treated like minors all their lives in both public and private matters. However, no date has been given from when these new regulations will come in to effect.
Rima bint Bandar Al Saud, the first woman to become an envoy for Saudi Arabia and the Saudi ambassador to the US, took to Twitter to express her elation over this freedom of travel for women. She described these new regulations as heralding holistic change. On the other hand, some other activists like Ms. Shaffa tweeted that these reforms are being rejoiced because the “Saudi government has set the bar so low for human rights that any minor reform will always seem monumental” (sic). On the other hand, reactions from some conservative women have been along the lines of being unhappy as they feel their young daughters will grow up and leave the country and their families.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being hailed as the one in the eyes of the Saudi public to have relaxed these guardianship restrictions. He also lifted the ban on women drivers last year. However, the current rule allowing independent travel to women is the fruit of many Saudi women rights’ activists who submitted a petition to the kingdom in 2016. All of these activists are currently either in detention or have gone abroad. The increasing rights granted to women in the last few years, seem to some Arab Affairs analysts, to be a way to keep balance in the eyes of the Saudi public and the world, alongside major crackdowns on Saudi women activists who are in detention and allege being tortured during their time in prison.
Saudi women still cannot be bailed or released from prison without a male relative coming to sign their approval. Under Saudi law, male guardians (which may be father, husband, son or any other male relative who is responsible for the woman’s maintenance) can file a charge of ‘disobedience’ against women which is permissible in court. In Saudi Arabia, the justification given is backed by interpreting the precepts of Koran and Shariat to mean that men are protectors of women because they have been endowed with more strength and hence have the duty of maintaining them at their expense.
Although the right to independently travel is a big win for women tin Saudi Arabia, there is still a very long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality. Saudi Arabia ranked 141 out of 144 countries in gender equality rankings as conducted by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018. Many aspects of the guardianship system still remain in place. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot marry or live on their own without a male relative’s consent. They also cannot pass on citizenship to their children without their guardian’s approval.
The renunciation of Islam is also a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. This became world news when #SaveRahaf Campaign went viral on Twitter in January this year. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18 year old girl from Saudi Arabia, fled her parents’ home after alleging abuse by her father. She fled from Saudi Arabia in hopes of reaching Australia, but was detained in Bangkok by the Thai police. There she refused to open her hotel door, live-streaming her struggle which went viral on the internet. She finally came out when UN officials arrived and agreed to grant her refugee status. She was given asylum in Canada after that.
24 year old Salwa also fled home along with her 19 year old sister in May 2018 and eventually found asylum in Canada. She described the whole process of running away from home as one they had been planning for 6 years. It took this long for them to get hold of their passports one night when their parents were sleeping. Salwa recounts the fear of being killed if they had been caught. Saudi Arabia had (until this new rule) an online system wherein guardians had to give their daughters and wives online “permission” using their account on the ministry website to be allowed to board a plane. Salwa says she stole her father’s phone when her father was sleeping and changed the mobile number registered with her father’s ministry website account to her own phone number and granted her and her sister access to travel (in 2018).
Although Saudi Arabia claims that Shariat law ensures gender equality, the cases of many women’s rights activists who were discriminated against by the state have been making international news in recent years. Samar Badawi, a Saudi human rights activist, filed a legal suit against her father for physical abuse in 2008 , but she was detained in prison for 7 months because of a counter-lawsuit her father filed against her on charges of “disobedience”. It was only in 2010 when world activists took interest in her case were the “disobedience” charges against her dropped.
Another activist, Mariam al-Otaibi drew largscale attention as she left prison without guardian consent in 2017 after being detained for 3 months also “disobedience” charges for social media activism against the guardianship system. In another news-making incident in 20017, Dina Ali Lasloom fled from her family because she was going to be forcefully married, but was detained and returned to her family by airport authorities during a stop-over in Philippines on her way to Australia.
Such a progressive reform as independent travel for women is a feather in the cap for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as it has significantly increased his popularity and appeal to the masses. However international analysts are not ignoring the fact that this reform comes within a general atmosphere of crackdown on many women human right activists in the kingdom. Some Arab affairs analysts also feel that this regulation as well as the 2018 removal of ban on women being allowed to drive were done in an effort of image management after worldwide defamation after allegations of being involved in journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s killing.
Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has the dismal Aggregate Freedom Score of 7 out of 100 in freedomhouse.org’s 2019 report. No representatives are nationally elected. The head of state is chosen from a line of male successors of the king according to his preference and undergoes approval of a council of senior princes. The King rules for life. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended his reign in 2015 after his predecessor and half-brother King Abdullah passed away. In 2017, King Salman appointed his favourite son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince, displacing MBS’s older cousin Mohammed bin Nayef following a house arrest on him and deeming null all official positions held by Mohammed bin Nayef. The cabinet in Saudi kingdom is appointed by the king himself and King Salman is the Prime Minister and MBS the Deputy Prime Minister for all official purposes. Saudi Arabia is one of the only three absolute monarchies existing in the world as of 2019, the other two being Oman and Swaziland. In total there exist 27 monarchies in the world today, but 24 out of those 27 are in Constitutional states where the Royal Family is not the head of state.
Picture Courtesy- Time Magazine