Saudi Arabia announced on Friday that it would allow adult women to obtain passports, travel and work without securing the permission of a male relative, dealing significant blows to the kingdom’s so-called “guardianship” system that has long been criticized by rights campaigners as oppressive to women.
The new regulations, made by the Saudi cabinet and published in a government publication, are the latest in a series of steps by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to shake off the kingdom’s image as one of the world’s most restrictive places for women.
Since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015 and began handing tremendous powers to his son, Prince Mohammed has launched initiatives aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy, confronting the kingdom’s regional foes and loosening strict social restrictions by allowing concerts and opening movie theaters.
After the kingdom lifted its longstanding prohibition on women driving in June 2018, activists who had long campaigned against the ban shifted their focus to the kingdom’s so-called “guardianship” system, a mix of laws, regulations and social customs that critics said gave women in the kingdom a status similar to that of minors. Under the system, all women had to have a male “guardian,” usually a father or husband, but sometimes a son or other male relative, whose permission was required for a woman to obtain a passport, travel abroad, get a job or seek certain medical procedures.
The kingdom’s restrictions on women have caused a number to fleein recent years, seeking refuge abroad from controlling or abusive relatives and a legal system they believed would not protect them.
When asked about guardianship in an interview last year, Prince Mohammed suggested that he would like to diminish the regulations but had to balance between Saudis who wanted change and conservative families who did not.
“Saudis don’t want to lose their identity, but we want to be part of the global culture,” he said. “We want to merge our culture with global identity.”
The regulatory changes were published on Friday in Um Al-Qura, a publication that serves as an official gazette, and marked significant steps toward change by placing Saudi men and women on equal legal footing on some issues.
The new regulations give any adult Saudi, regardless of sex, the ability to obtain a passport, travel, register births, marriages and divorces, and serve as the legal guardian of minors. They also declared that “work is the right of the citizen,” and that employers could not discriminate against employees based on sex, age or handicaps.
It remained to be seen how quickly the new regulations would trickle down into Saudi society, where many people remain deeply conservative about gender roles and some men will likely continue to use their power in the home to control women. It could also take time for the changes to take root in the Saudi bureaucracy, where government functionaries often impose restrictions based more on custom than on law.
But many Saudi women — and Saudi men — supported the changes, taking to social media to respond with the Arabic hashtags “No guardianship for women’s travel” and “Thank you Mohammed bin Salman.”