Rabat – Saudi Arabia, notorious for its heavy restriction of women, has announced a series of reforms to increase their freedom.
One of the new cabinet decrees published by the official Saudi gazette on Friday, August 2, allows women over the age of 21 to apply for a passport without authorization and travel without the guardianship of a man.
The new amendments also allow women to register childbirth, marriage, or divorce, and to be issued official family documents. Women will also now be eligible to guardians to children.
Previously, women were required to seek permission from their guardian, usually their father or husband, to marry, apply for a passport or to leave the country.
The reforms follow several high-profile cases of Saudi women fleeing Saudi Arabia and seeking asylum in countries such as the UK and Canada, citing gender oppression.
Friday’s royal decrees also covered employment regulations, ruling that all citizens in the country have the right to work without facing discrimination based on gender, disability or age.
The decree is part of a plan Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in 2016 to diversify the economy by 2030 and try to increase women’s participation in the workforce to 30% from 22%.
New regulations “are history in the making”
Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever female ambassador to the United States, said on Twitter that the amendments “are designed to elevate the status of Saudi women within our society, including granting them the right to apply for passports and travel independently.”
“These developments have been a long time coming,” she continued. “From the inclusion of women in the consultative council to issuing driving licenses to women, our leadership has proved its unequivocal commitment to gender equality.”
“These new regulations are history in the making. They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society. It is a holistic approach to gender equality that will unquestionably create real change for Saudi women,” added Princess Reema.
“Women have always played an integral role in our country’s development, and they will continue to do so moving forward on equal footing with their male counterparts,” she finished her statement by saying.
A long way still to go, with activists on trial and guardianship still in place
While the reforms under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reign mark a positive move in the direction of gender equality, many are pointing out there is still a long way to go and that women are also still facing human rights violations in the country.
10 prominent Saudi women’s rights activists are currently on trial for “cybercrimes,” according to a UK group advocating for Saudi rights, ALQST.
4 of the women allege they have been tortured in prison, have been subjected to electric shocks and whippings, and have been sexually harassed and assaulted.
The prosecution charged them with crimes under the country’s cybercrime law, based on a string of alleged confessions that the women had been in contact with human rights organisations. None of the women had access to a lawyer.
— القسط ALQST (@ALQST_ORG) March 13, 2019
In March, more than 30 countries at the UN Human Rights Council criticized Saudi Arabia for detaining the women and human rights organizations have decried the arrests as well.
So before we all start rejoicing these reforms we need 2 remember that the Saudi government has set the bar so low for human rights that any minor reform will always seem monumental.
— MS SΛFFΛΛ (@MsSaffaa) August 2, 2019
Despite Friday’s reforms, many elements of the guardianship system remain in place. Women still need permission from a male relative to marry or live on their own, as well as leave prison if they have been detained. They still cannot pass on citizenship to their children, or provide consent for their children to marry.