RIYADH: Saudi Arabia‘s decision to allow women to travel independently was hailed in the kingdom Friday as a historic leap for gender equality, but it also drew anger from religious conservatives.
The Muslim kingdom announced it was effectively allowing women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel abroad without securing the permission of their “guardians” — husband, father or other male relatives.
The reform, which also covers civil rights such as allowing women to register childbirth, marriage or divorce, does not dismantle but diminishes the male guardianship system that has long been a symbol of repression against women.
“The new regulations are history in the making,” Princess Reema bint Bandar, named earlier this year as Saudi Arabia’s first woman ambassador to Washington, said on Twitter.
“They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society. It is a holistic approach to gender equality that will unquestionably create real change for Saudi women.”
The decision triggered a wave of jubilation on social media, with the hashtag “No guardianship over women travel” and “This is our time” gaining traction.
Many also posted humorous memes of women dashing to airports lugging suitcases and being trailed by male relatives.
The reform, which grants women greater autonomy and mobility, comes as the petrostate reels from low oil prices and seeks to boost employment opportunities for women –- currently facing high joblessness.
“This can be the beginning of economic migration that relieves pressure on (the crown prince) to create jobs for educated women in a liberalised economy with less public sector opportunities,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi expert at the London School of Economics.
– Conservative backlash –
The changes come after high-profile attempts by women to escape alleged guardianship abuse despite a string of reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a historic decree last year that overturned the world’s only ban on women drivers.
Some Saudi women said they had to hack into their guardian’s phone to alter the settings on a government app that would allow them to exit the country.
Among the women who fled was 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun, whose live-tweeted asylum plea from a Bangkok hotel in January after she fled her Saudi family drew global attention.
Qunun eventually sought asylum in Canada, but the Saudi embassy in Bangkok faced global criticism for allegedly attempting to repatriate her to the kingdom against her will.
“The new regulations do not only allow women to issue passports and travel without a guardian’s permission, but will also limit the state’s interference in the private sphere,” Saudi academic Eman Alhussein said on Twitter.
It was unclear how quickly the changes would take root in a society steeped in conservatism and a bureaucratic machinery perceived to be averse to change.
The reform also drew backlash from arch-conservatives, many of whom shared old video sermons on social media by Saudi clerics advocating guardianship laws.
Some also denounced the change as “unIslamic” in a society that traditionally sees men as protectors of women.
One Twitter user posted a portrait of women veiled head-to-toe wriggling underneath a barbed wire fence and emerging skimpily clad on the other side.