CHANGE COMES SLOWLY FOR SAUDI ARABIAN WOMEN
‘IT CANNOT JUST BE A CHANGE IN THE LAW, IT NEEDS TO BE A CHANGE IN THE MINDSET’
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me going on trips without him or my brother, and I had always respected his wishes,” eman, who asked that her surname not be published, told the daily telegraph.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.”
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.