Saudi Arabia will allow women to travel abroad without permission from a male guardian, local media say, ending a restriction that came under heavy international criticism and led some women to take extreme measures to flee the country.
Authorities have approved amendments to laws governing travel documents and civil status, allowing women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and leave the country without securing the consent of a guardian, Okaz newspaper reported on Thursday, without saying where it got the information.
The English-language Arab News daily said King Salman Bin Abdulaziz approved the changes in a royal decree. The Saudi embassy in Washington said the new law would go into effect by the end of August and include an end to restrictions on travel.
“Under its provisions, women will be able to apply for their passports independently in the same manner that men apply,” the embassy’s statement said.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put loosening social restrictions at the heart of his economic transformation plan for Saudi Arabia, which relies on diversifying away from oil and attracting foreign investment.
The government has clipped the powers of the kingdom’s infamous religious police, relaxed gender segregation and lifted a ban on women driving. At the same time, authorities have clamped down on domestic criticism and arrested some of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists.
The latest changes remove language that dictates a woman’s place of residence is with her husband and will allow women to report marriages, divorces and births similarly to men, Okaz reported.
Saudi women’s rights activists have campaigned for years against the conservative Islamic kingdom’s guardianship system, which renders women legal dependents of a male relative throughout their lives. Women currently need permission from their guardian - typically a father or husband, but sometimes a brother or son - to marry, apply for a passport or leave the country.
Many of the women who fought for an end to guardianship are currently banned from travel or are behind bars, including Loujain Al-Hathoul, an activist who turned 30 in jail this week.
Saudis who support weakening or abolishing the guardianship regulations rushed to celebrate and share jokes on social media, including one who posted a video showing a group of women leaving home with suitcases.
"A thousand congratulations to our girls, and no tears are shed for those who opposed this in order to protect their interests and authority," Hamsa Sonosi, a Saudi female writer and researcher, wrote on Twitter. "From my heart, I’m rejoicing for the situation of many I know who suffer subjugation because of this issue."
Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, speaking at a Bloomberg conference in San Francisco before the reports, said the changes would be "one of the biggest" news in Saudi Arabia.
The amendments mentioned by Okaz would not completely dismantle the guardianship system, but they would be a significant move in that direction. They would also end a particularly visible restriction that was criticized at home and abroad; recently a spate of women have fled Saudi Arabia while their families were on vacation and claimed asylum abroad, often alleging abuse.
However a new policy on travel would likely frustrate some conservative Saudis and lead to clashes within families. Despite the rapid change, much of Saudi Arabia’s population is deeply traditional. Guardianship remains popular among many men and women who say they view it as a religious mandate that protects women.
The decision "would give women a chance to travel without the approval of their father or husband which is forbidden in Islamic law," said Rahaf, a 26-year-old resident of Riyadh, who asked for her last name not to be used.