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Saudi guardianship reform ‘a charade’ for women’s rights, says HRW

Long-awaited reforms on women's rights in Saudi Arabia have attracted scepticism [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 August, 2019

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Recent loosening of guardianship laws does not guarantee Saudi women can freely travel abroad, HRW warned, lambasting the regime’s detention of women activists while it claims to progress women’s rights.
A leading human rights watchdog has warned that Saudi Arabia’s long awaited loosening of restrictions on women may not actually ensure their right to freely travel abroad.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday that the new regulations, which allow women over 21 to obtain passports and travel abroad without the permission of their male guardian, may actually be undermined by the men's ability to obtain court orders to forcible return female relatives back home.

Saudi media reported that women have begun travelling abroad without permission since the Departments of Passport and Civil Status have began enforcing the new laws on August 20.

However, the online platform Absher, which Saudis use to request new passports, has not been updated to include the new laws, and still allow male guardians to reject female relatives’ travel.

Read more: Saudi Arabia may be about to relax male guardianship over women, but there's a catch

However the Passports Department said on Twitter that women can apply for passports in person.

The recent developments come on the back of the ongoing detention and alleged torture and sexual harassment of women’s rights activists in the kingdom.

“Saudi women have won a long-awaited victory to travel abroad and apply for passports without a male guardian’s permission,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“However, the authorities should ensure that male guardians are not able to use court orders to sidestep this advance, and the authorities should update the online platform Absher so that women can apply for passports as easily as men can.”

The charade should no longer go on that the Saudi authorities can grant reforms on the one hand and on the other imprison the women who fought for them

On August 18, the Saudi interior minister applied an amendment to the Travel Documents Law removing the requirement that women over 21 must have permission from a guardian to obtain a passport. Both males and females under 21 require permission to get a passport.

Despite the much-hyped changes to the law, which the group acknowledged were an important step, it highlighted that women still need approval for things like getting married, being released from prison, or receiving life-saving abortions. 

It also remarked that despite some changes to the civil status law, women still face discrimination on matters including marriage, family, divorce, and child custody.

Men can still file cases against women under their guardianship, including daughters, wives, and sisters,  for “disobedience,” which allows them to be forcibly return to their male guardians’ home or imprisoned.

“These combined changes are among the most sweeping reforms of women’s rights that Saudi Arabia has made and the first significant break with the country’s male guardianship system, which has allowed men to control Saudi women’s lives from birth to death,” Begum said.

Read more: Saudi women activists should be honoured, not imprisoned


“Now the Saudi authorities should uproot all remaining discrimination against women in both law and practice.”

At least five women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah remain in prison and have suffered a concerted government smear campaign pertaining to their work, which includes campaigning against the male guardianship system. Many, including Hathloul, have voiced serious allegations of torture and sexual harassment in prison.

“The charade should no longer go on that the Saudi authorities can grant reforms on the one hand and on the other imprison the women who fought for them,” Begum said. “Saudi authorities need to release these women immediately and have all charges against them dropped.”

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