This measure undermines the Saudi system of “male guardian”, which subjects women to the arbitrary authority of their husband, father or other male relatives. Described by human rights defenders, these restrictions have been thwarted in recent months by several young Saudi women who fled abroad while keeping company with their false “guardians”.
“A passport will be issued to any Saudi national who will apply,” proclaims a government decree published in the official journal Umm Al Qura. According to the Okaz government’s daily newspaper and other media reports citing official sources, this new rule means that any Saudi woman age 21 or older will be able to obtain a passport and leave the country without the permission of her “guardian”.
Another pro-government newspaper, Saudi Gazette, hailed this measure as “a giant step for Saudi women”. “The dreams of some women were broken because of their inability to leave the country to (…) study abroad, to respond to a job offer or even to flee if they wanted,” commented on Twitter Saudi businesswoman Muna Abu Sulayman. “This change means that women are on the path to take full control of their legal destiny,” she said.
Another change announced on Thursday: Saudi women will now officially be able to declare a birth, marriage or divorce, and have parental authority over their minor children, prerogatives hitherto reserved for men.
These reforms come as Saudi Arabia is criticized for its human rights behavior, including the ongoing trial against eleven activists who have publicly protested against the “male guardian” system.
The most famous of these activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, received 30 years in prison this week. She and several other activists, who have been sued for contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights organizations, claim to have been tortured and sexually harassed during their detention.
The decision to allow Saudi women to travel freely is part of the series of liberalization measures decided by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, who is de facto leading the ultra-conservative kingdom.