New initiative allows women to travel independently but many barriers remain
Women 21 years and older may now leave the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without the permission of a male guardian, thanks to a new reform initiated by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS. The law, which was announced earlier this month, went into effect Monday. The move is part of MBS’s modernization campaign, Vision 2030, which includes other changes, some of which directly affect women such as allowing them to drive.
The measure is in line with other recent decrees that allow women to obtain a family register and receive passports without a male guardian present, among other reforms.
“This is another step in the right direction,” Dr. Elham Manea, associate professor of Middle East Studies at Zurich University, told The Media Line. “All of [this] provides more space of freedom and independence for women.”
According to the Saudi Gazette, hundreds of women traveled without a male guardian to Bahrain, and 1,000 women have exited the kingdom’s Eastern Province as a result of the change.
The new reform allows exemptions for Saudi citizens younger than twenty-one to travel without a guardian, regardless of gender. These include newly married couples, people going abroad for work with written permission from their supervisor, and students obtaining degrees internationally.
MBS’ initiatives have been met with mixed reactions.
Omaima Al-Najjar, a Saudi physician and political refugee, tweeted a solution for men displeased with the new status quo: “To [satisfy] angry Saudi men who are unhappy with women being able to travel without [permission] of a male guardianship. (A man is entitled to include a condition in the marriage contract that states his wife SHALL NOT travel without his permission).
Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Arabian Foundation, believes the kingdom should be given more credit for its actions.
“Guardianship system being chipped away, not that critics, who have been making so much noise about it, care to acknowledge,” he tweeted.
Aida Al-Otaibi, owner of Jeddah-based company Global Solutions, is marking MBS’s new ruling by flying to Dubai to celebrate with some of her girlfriends and family. “We are very happy and excited, [there are] no words to express our feelings,” she told The Media Line. “We created a hashtag [in Arabic] to thank our crown prince for his vision and his trust.”
Al-Otaibi, a self-described liberal whose father and brother served in the Saudi armed forces, added, “I hope the move will pave the path for more reforms and create space for Saudi women to serve the nation from the forefront.”
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But human rights groups caution that not all these new measures have been implemented on the ground. Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told The Media Line that her organization had not been able to verify whether all woman have equally benefited from the reforms.
“The Saudis want to be seen as implementing a very important decision,” Begum said, “[but] we have not been able to [confirm] that women who do not have permission from their guardians are able to travel. It could be that women who have left so far are ones who already had [permission].”
Begum further explained that women must go to passport offices to obtain and renew their documents, because the reform allowing women to travel without permission of a guardian has not been updated on the online platform. Interior Ministry Spokesman Major General Mansour Al-Turki says this will be changed soon, but no date has been given for the fix.
“It is likely that women and girls will [still] face more barriers in travel than men and boys,” Begum stressed.
Still, she described the series of decisions regarding civil status, travel, and anti-discrimination in employment as having “far more reaching effects than the law allowing women to drive.”
In order to ensure the maximum benefit of the changes, Begum says that it is up to the House of Saud to enforce these reforms.
“Equality and non-discrimination are concepts that the state has a positive duty to [promote], like setting up a monitoring system, which is crucial,” she said. “Otherwise, [the law] will become less overtly discriminatory but remain so in practice.”
Zurich University’s Manea agrees that “implementation measures should be imposed as well.” She argues that this would help enforcement at workplaces which refuse to comply with the new reforms.
Manea contends there are still many societal barriers to ending the guardianship system, including “patriarchal structures and the norms that consider women of less value in addition to the fundamentalist religious interpretation.”
Nevertheless, Manea qualified, “these sets of reforms are certainly shaking this guardianship system but it is yet to end it.
“But change is happening and that is important.”
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)