Another milestone for women’s rights
Saudi Arabia has achieved another milestone for women’s rights. Only a year after the historic decision to allow them to drive, it was announced on Friday that women will be allowed to travel abroad and obtain a passport without requiring permission from a male guardian, thus bringing down another wall of male dominance and control.
Although many Saudi women and men have hailed the decision, not everyone is happy. The decision has instigated discussion on social media about the wisdom of permitting young women to travel without the knowledge and permission of their parents. Some have criticized the portrayal of fathers as domineering rather than concerned for their daughters.
Others say the decision will encourage children to be disrespectful toward their parents and disregard society’s norms and values. Some fear that this will lead to the collapse of traditional family relations and structure, and that more young girls will fall prey to outside influences and leave their homes.
While some of these fears might be valid, they seem exaggerated. Traditionally, women are less likely to act wild or irresponsibly. Why assume the worst behavior by Saudi women, just like when they were allowed to drive? One year later, all the doom-and-gloom theories turned out to be hype over nothing. More importantly, how young men and women behave depends on how they were raised, and on relations within the family.
Unfortunately, some Saudi families have almost relied on the government to raise their kids, or left it to the household help. Furthermore, not all parents are fit to take care of their children — there should be convenient, reliable and discrete ways for minors to seek help, or to detect trouble and intervene before it is too late and we find them on a plane to somewhere.
Having said all that, Saudi society is conservative by nature, and in general Saudi women have deep religious principles and respect for their families and social values, so there is no need to expect droves of them to flee.
The decision to permit passports and travel for young adults puts the responsibility squarely on them and their parents. The government cannot be blamed or held responsible anymore for someone over the age of 21 leaving the country unless they are wanted by the police or in court.
The decision to permit passports and travel for young adults puts the responsibility squarely on Saudi women and their parents.
What some critics fail to notice is that the decision gives adult women who do not have a husband or father the respect and dignity of not having to get permission to travel from their brother, son, nephew, uncle or even grandson. Furthermore, how can women be expected to hold leadership positions if they are restricted from moving freely?
The problem with the guardianship system is it was demeaning to women and was abused by some men. By dismantling it, the government is declaring that there was no religious basis for it, as has been argued, and that it was simply a matter of interpretations, traditions and a patriarchal system.
In addition to the issue of travel, the more significant changes introduced concern civil status rights. These changes are truly historic and empowering for women, who have been given the right to register births, marriage or divorce, and to request a copy of the family register. Both parents have been given “head of family” status.
Divorced women will particularly benefit from these changes because it means they are in control of their social status and of their children’s, and are not left to the whims and powers of their exes.
The labor law and social insurance laws have also been changed by unifying the retirement age and employment opportunities for both sexes; ending discrimination based on sex, disability and age; and making it illegal to fire a woman during pregnancy or while on maternity leave.
These are very important changes because they establish the rights of women as equal citizens and empower them to be more independent legally and financially, especially those who are disadvantaged or suffered from male guardianship.
With this, Saudi Arabia has made momentous progress in its record on women’s rights, bypassing some other Arab and Islamic states, and maybe others. It is a sign of the Saudi leadership’s determination and will to move forward with national goals and objectives, and to change what needed to be changed a long time ago. Thank you, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1