Just over a year since women were granted the historical right to drive, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has now passed another monumental reform to enable females to finally obtain passports and travel alone.
According to the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Information, the amendment – which was signed by the Saudi Cabinet on Thursday – overturns the longstanding regulation that women must gain approval from a male guardian to receive a passport or were granted a page in their guardian’s passport, rendering it illegal for them to travel abroad independently.
Effective as of the end of August, the new law gives Saudi women access to passports without male approval and those over the age of 21 will be able to travel without male supervision.
The amendment marks the latest in a slow but steady effort by officials to introduce a number of sweeping reforms in the Gulf country, as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to “promote women’s rights and empowerment, equal to men.”
Aside from the landmark decision to allow women to get behind the wheel last year, in 2015 women were able to vote for the first time in municipal elections and campaigns have been bolstered to urge women into higher positions in government and the workplace.
“These developments have been a long time coming. 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,” Reema Bandar Al-Saud, the newly-appointed Saudi female ambassador to the United States tweeted on Friday.
Riyadh in recent years has opened movie theaters and invited Hollywood entertainers to perform in large-scale concerts for all, and has additionally opened some sectors of work – including air traffic control, passport control and investigators in the public prosecution – of which women were previously barred.
However, activists and critics continue to point to the mass divisions in gender equality and the number of stringent measures that still hamper women’s progress, in particular, the notion that females still being required by law to obtain male authorization to get married or divorced. Those who qualify as guardians to make decisions on a female’s behalf include a husband, father, brother, son.
“Women in Saudi Arabia face formal and informal barriers when attempting to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative,” Human Rights Watch surmised in its 2019 World Report, underscoring that women face potentially unfair trials and that prior to lifting the driving ban, many female activists were detained “under dubious legal pretenses.”
The World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2018” – which uses the markers of economic opportunity, political empowerment, education options, health and survival – ranked Saudi Arabia as the ninth-worst country to be female, ahead of Iran, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen which took the bottom spot.
Nonetheless, Saudi officials told Fox News recently that the Kingdom to absolutely committed to the quest for equality – but stressed the importance of steady advancements and that while it is impossible to make changes overnight that many critics demand, change is and will continue to happen.