Saudi mothers will be able to apply for passports for children in their custody and approve travel abroad under new guidelines that represent a further chipping away of exclusive male power in the conservative Islamic kingdom.
The changes, detailed on the website of Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Passports on Monday, spell out how a major policy change earlier this month -- which allowed women over 21 to leave the country without a male relative’s permission from the end of August -- will work in practice.
Saudi women’s rights activists have campaigned for years against the kingdom’s guardianship system, which rendered women legal dependents of a male relative throughout their lives -- typically a father or husband, but sometimes a brother or son. The requirement that women get guardian approval to travel was the most visible manifestation of the system and had led to some women taking desperate measures to flee the country.
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.
At the same time, though, authorities have clamped down on domestic criticism and arrested some of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists. Many of the women who fought for an end to guardianship are banned from travel or are behind bars, accused of undermining the state and having ties to foreign entities.
The new guidelines specify that men and women over the age of 21 can obtain passports and travel without a guardian’s approval. Those who are under 21 won’t need permission if they are either married, traveling to study on a government scholarship or heading overseas on “official duties."
In another key shift, Saudis under 21 whose fathers are dead can get approval to travel from their mother, as opposed to another male relative -- though the guidelines still appear to give priority to fathers if both parents are alive.
In cases of divorce, whichever parent has custody can apply for passports and issue travel permissions for their children. Previously that right was restricted to men, leaving some mothers in the lurch.