Saudi Arabia to 'ease' male guardianship law restricting women's travel

Josie Ensor
Saudi women tour a car showroom for women on January 11, 2018, in the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah. - AFP

Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to relax its strict male guardianship laws to allow women to travel without requiring permission, in what would be the biggest reform yet to women's rights in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The move would end guardianship laws pertaining to travel for men and women over 18 years old, allowing them to leave the country without the consent of a designated male family member, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

It was not clear exactly when it would come into force, but it was reported it could happen as early as this year. There was no immediate comment from the Saudi government.

The decision, which has not been officially announced but is reported to have been made “at the top”, comes after several high-profile cases of Saudi women requesting asylum abroad having fled their families.

Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested last year after campaigning for the abolishment of male guardianship laws Credit: Reuters

Male guardianship laws related to women’s right to marry, work, leave prison and a number of other rights, however, would still be in place.

The issue of male guardianship is extremely sensitive in the kingdom, where traditional, tribal families view what they consider to be the protection of women as a man's duty.

Women, even as adults, can be prevented from doing anything from travelling, marrying, renting, and working without permission.

There is even a government app that helps alert male guardians if female relatives try to check in at any of the kingdom’s airports.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s had promised a tranche of reforms aimed at liberalising and opening up the country to the world.

The royal court announced a decision to allow women to drive after a decades-long ban in late 2017. But before the new law came into force the following June, more than a dozen women's rights activists who had campaigned for the right to drive and against the guardianship system were arrested.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a plenary session on the second day of the G20 Leader's Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Credit: Handout

A number are still being held more than a year on, raising questions as to the seriousness of Prince Mohammed’s vision for the kingdom.

Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, drew worldwide attention when she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok in January after fleeing her family during a trip to Kuwait.

Her social media pleas on Twitter prompted quick action by the UNHCR and she was granted asylum in Canada.

Miss Qunun's successful escape inspired others to copy her and a number of other women fled abroad to seek asylum, including Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, who claimed from Georgia that they were being badly treated by their father. 

Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport Credit: Reuters

Saudi observers say that dismantling the law and customs will not be easy, particularly in more rural, conservative areas outside cosmopolitan cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. 

Even loosening the rules on foreign travel could fuel disapproval if it leads to many women leaving the country.

“Saudi has promised to end the guardianship system over the past decade at least a few times at the UN Human Rights Council sessions,” tweeted Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “But it has only done it in dribs and drabs. But this will be a big deal if promise is kept.

“Keep in mind, the women who have struggled and sacrificed for years to end the male guardianship system remain jailed and face long prison sentences for no reason than having demanded what the government has now promised to do.”