Vancouver Sun - - WORLD - JOSIE EN­SOR in Riyadh

Scan­ning the de­par­tures board at riyadh’s in­ter­na­tional air­port, eman tried to find her gate as she strug­gled with an over­sized suitcase. She had trav­elled count­less times be­fore but al­ways with her fa­ther, who had taken care of ev­ery­thing.

It was the first time the 26-year-old had flown alone and she was find­ing it all a bit daunt­ing.

“my fa­ther didn’t like me go­ing on trips with­out him or my brother, and I had al­ways re­spected his wishes,” eman, who asked that her sur­name not be pub­lished, told the daily tele­graph. “He was wor­ried about what I would do if I had too much in­de­pen­dence.”

un­der Saudi ara­bia’s guardian­ship sys­tem, women had to rely on the per­mis­sion of male rel­a­tives to leave the coun­try and, in some cases, even to leave the home. but a royal de­cree is­sued in au­gust ruled that women over the age of 21 could travel abroad and ap­ply for a pass­port with­out a guardian’s per­mis­sion.

eman felt em­bold­ened by the de­cree to tell her fa­ther that she would be trav­el­ling alone this time for a busi­ness meet­ing in beirut, where she hoped to find new clients for her fledg­ling beauty com­pany.

“He wants my busi­ness to suc­ceed, but he is still a bit old-fash­ioned,” she said. “the guardian­ship laws are partly about pro­tect­ing women, but I think part of it has al­ways been about con­trol.”

things have been chang­ing quickly in the ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive king­dom as the crown Prince mo­hammed bin Sal­man pushes to mod­ern­ize the coun­try. In less than a year, mbs, as he has be­come known, has dropped Saudi’s dra­co­nian ban on women driv­ing, done away with the “hai’a” that po­liced their dress and sanc­tioned mixed gen­der gath­er­ings.

but de­spite the re­forms, women in Saudi told the tele­graph that the coun­try’s laws con­tinue to work against them to pre­vent them from trav­el­ling.

male guardians can still file cases of fil­ial “dis­obe­di­ence,” a crime that can lead to forcible re­turn to their male guardian’s home or im­pris­on­ment in a women’s shel­ter. a le­gal pro­vi­sion known as “taghayyub” in ara­bic, mean­ing “ab­sent,” could also be in­voked if a woman runs away from home with­out per­mis­sion.

Just this month it was re­ported that Princess bas­mah bint Saud bin ab­dul aziz, 55, the youngest daugh­ter of de­posed King Saud, was ar­rested try­ing to board a flight from the city of Jed­dah to Geneva.

“the de­cree does not ap­pear to pos­i­tively af­firm women’s right to travel abroad, as is their right un­der in­ter­na­tional law, and be­cause it is not spe­cific in its word­ing there are loop­holes,” said rothna begum, women’s rights re­searcher for the mid­dle east and north africa at Hu­man rights Watch.

In an­other ex­am­ple, di­vorced moth­ers also spoke of how they feared they would not be able to travel with their chil­dren. more of­ten than not in Saudi, men win pri­mary cus­tody in a di­vorce, mean­ing moth­ers are re­quired to get the per­mis­sion of the fa­ther to fly with their chil­dren.

one woman, who holds dual Saudi-cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship, said she wanted to take her two chil­dren to see her par­ents in ot­tawa but her ex-hus­band had not given her per­mis­sion for them to go.

the royal court de­ci­sion fol­lowed a se­ries of high-pro­file cases of Saudi women at­tempt­ing to flee the king­dom. crit­ics say they likely put pres­sure on a crown prince in­creas­ingly con­cerned about his im­age abroad, which has al­ready been dented by the mass ar­rest of women’s rights ac­tivists and the bru­tal mur­der of Ja­mal Khashoggi, the dis­si­dent jour­nal­ist, last year.

ra­haf mo­hammed al-qu­nun, 18, bar­ri­caded her­self in a ho­tel room in bangkok in Jan­uary claim­ing she had been im­pris­oned and abused by her fa­ther back in Saudi and wanted to claim asy­lum.

a few months later, sis­ters dua, 22, and dalal al-showaiki, 20, es­caped dur­ing a fam­ily hol­i­day in tur­key, claim­ing they too had suf­fered at the hands of their fa­ther and were be­ing forced into ar­ranged mar­riages. Jawhara, 30, a housewife from riyadh, said dur­ing a re­cent visit that she was lucky to have a sup­port­ive hus­band, but said there were many more women that do not.

the num­ber of Saudis seek­ing asy­lum abroad has in­creased hugely in re­cent years.

Saudis made at least 815 asy­lum claims world­wide in 2017, which in­cludes both men and women, com­pared with 195 in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the united na­tions refugee agency’s data­base.

rights groups say this can be partly at­trib­uted to the open­ing up of so­cial me­dia in the king­dom, which has ex­posed women to free­doms ex­pe­ri­enced in the West.

In the case of dua and dalal, whose sit­u­a­tion be­came public af­ter they launched a twit­ter cam­paign ask­ing for help, the sis­ters’ par­ents have gone to some lengths to bring them home.

the fa­ther, whom they de­scribed as con­trol­ling and abu­sive, asked the Saudi em­bassy to help fa­cil­i­tate their re­turn. Staff told the sis­ters to come to the con­sulate to col­lect new pass­ports, which toby cad­man, a bri­tish hu­man rights lawyer who is help­ing dua and dalal’s claim for asy­lum, be­lieves was a ruse.

He said: “the new de­cree makes al­most no dif­fer­ence at all to the av­er­age woman in Saudi. It can­not just be a change in the law, it needs to be a change in the mind­set, a change in think­ing. that will take some time.”

Ha­mad I mo­hammed / reuters FILES

In the past, women in Saudi Ara­bia had to have per­mis­sion from a male rel­a­tive to leave the coun­try. Since Au­gust, women can travel abroad and get a pass­port with­out a guardian’s per­mis­sion.

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