Saudi Arabia has announced a change in its law that will allow women to obtain passports and travel internationally without being escorted by a male “guardian” — which is undoubtedly good news — but there’s a long way to go for gender equality in the Islamic nation.
Case in point: There are still women in Saudi prisons for protesting this law and similar ones. This is also why we didn’t fawn over Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive in 2018, while the government was still arresting female activists.
The legal changes are part of a larger shift in the nation’s policies in an attempt to appear more welcoming to the outside world, according to NPR, though no discussion of Saudi policies can be complete without mentioning how Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the assassination of an American journalist.
The changes are part of a set of decrees that also allow women for the first time to register a marriage, divorce or the birth of a child and to obtain family documents — a move that would make it easier for them to obtain identity cards or enroll children in school, The Associated Press notes.
The decision follows the high-profile case in January of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room to prevent her family from returning her to Saudi Arabia. She was eventually granted asylum in Canada.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been undergoing a gradual liberalization under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The word “gradual” is appropriate. Every year, women in Saudi Arabia seem to get another right or two, like it’s a minor reward, all while MBS imprisons activists and orders hits on journalists like Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered on the Crown’s orders.
That hasn’t stopped some media outlets from celebrating the news. A pro-government newspaper, the Saudi Gazette, reportedly called it “one giant leap for Saudi women,” while the first female Saudi ambassador to the United States cast it as an end to unfair treatment of all women.
Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the kingdom’s first female ambassador to the United States, who was appointed in the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, sent out a series of four tweets praising the change in the law.
“The new regulations are history in the making,” she wrote. “Women have always played an integral role in our country’s development, and they will continue to do so moving forward on equal footing with their male counterparts…”
According to Al-Jazeera, the changes in the law weaken but do not eliminate the guardianship system and some fear that they could cause conflicts within Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative patriarchal society.
It’s laughable to think women are that much closer to equality in Saudi Arabia, in any sense of that word. These changes aren’t a “giant leap.” They’re merely tiptoeing in the right direction. There’s more work to be done, and it’d be foolish to think gender equality (rather than a better global image) is the ultimate end goal in this faith-based absolute monarchy.
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