Saudi Arabia will allow women over 21 to travel without permission of male guardianship

The cage door is now ajar, but far from open.

Travellers gather in front of the arrivals lounge at the Abha airport in the southern Saudi Arabian popular mountain resort of the same name, on July 2, 2019. CREDIT: AFP/Getty Images.
Travellers gather in front of the arrivals lounge at the Abha airport in the southern Saudi Arabian popular mountain resort of the same name, on July 2, 2019. CREDIT: AFP/Getty Images.

In another blow to its guardianship laws, a series of royal decrees published by Saudi Arabia’s state media on Friday allow women 21 and older to get a passport and travel without permission from male family members.

It’s unclear if any hurdles might remain in place preventing women from traveling. For instance, when the Gulf Arab kingdom finally allowed women to drive in June 2018, women still faced significant barriers, including the limited number of schools available to provide women with required instruction (only other females are allowed to teach women how to drive) and the cost of such courses, which have proven to be prohibitively high.

But in short order, getting a passport won’t be an issue. Even prior to this decree, women were allowed to apply for visas to other countries without the permission of a male relative.

Friday’s new decrees also give women more rights to handle administrative family matters, including registering the births of their children, marriage, and the right to seek guardianship of minor children. It also lifts some restrictions currently keeping women out of the workforce.

The extent to which these new decrees will be implemented and enforced remains to be seen, as Saudi Arabia, which lacks a codified legal code, largely enforces its laws in an informal system, relying on police and Sharia (Islamic law) court interpretations of Islamic scripture.


Additionally, being legally permitted to do something and actually being able to do it are two different things. For example, while women have the right to purchase cars, in many cases, according to a June 2018 domestic survey, some still say they don’t believe they have the legal agency to do so.

“For those who are not the primary decision maker, almost half (48%) indicated their husbands will be making the decision and a fourth said their father-in-laws (25%) have the final say in the matter,” reported the Saudi Gazette at the time.

Women will still need male permission to get married. Living independently — in a rented or purchased home — also still requires the permission of a male relative

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws have long been targeted by human rights groups as cruel and repressive. In recent years young women in increasing numbers have sought to escape the repressive kingdom, making public pleas for amnesty in countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom.

The reputations of these women are smeared in Saudi Arabia, where they are mocked and derided with all kinds of false claims and conspiracies.


The guardianship laws that act as a catalyst for these desperate and dangerous escapes dominate virtually every element of Saudi women’s lives, from girlhood to grave, giving male relatives full control over their personal, legal, and financial affairs as well as their freedom of movement and association. It makes it virtually impossible for them to get any kind of legal relief in situations that involve sexual assault and domestic abuse.

Saudi ruler and close ally of the Trump administration, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (known as MBS) has endeavored to promote a modern, progressive image of his country, touting women being allowed to drive and permitting the screenings of American films inside the Kingdom.

But some of the key activists who fought for women’s right to drive remained imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for nearly a year after the ban was lifted, with reports detailing their torture circulating as recently as late last year. At least one of the activists, Loujain al-Hathlou, remains imprisoned.

The effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s international standing has also taken a serious hit due to the country’s ongoing participation in Yemen’s war, where it has killed tens of thousands of civilians (including children), regularly bombing clinics, markets, and at least one school bus.

Relentless Saudi-led airstrikes have triggered multiple deadly cholera outbreaks and mass child malnourishment (pushing the country to the brink of famine). The Saudis have also been accused of war crimes by rights groups, and the United Nations is currently investigating these charges.


Meanwhile, the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a vocal critic of MBS’s rule — has further damaged the crown prince’s laboriously-crafted image.

Despite U.S. and international intelligence pointing the finger of blame at the Saudi government for the gruesome October 2018 killing, President Donald Trump has maintained his close relationship with MBS and has declined to blame him for Khashoggi’s murder.

The United States has also continued to provide support for Saudi Arabia with weapons sales (over congressional objection) and refueling capabilities.