Photograph — The Independent

“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.” – Reema Bandar Al-Saud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States.

Yesterday, Thursday, July 1, 2019, the Saudi Cabinet approved a set of reforms that will allow all Saudi women apply for passports and for women aged 21 and above to travel independently without approval from a male guardian. 

Before now, women in Saudi Arabia had to get authorisation from a male guardian to obtain a passport. Others were given a page in their male guardians’ passports, meaning they can only travel accompanied by their guardian. 

The reforms also give women the right to register births, marriage or divorce, putting them somewhat at par with men. They also cover employment regulations and expand work opportunities for women.

This new set of reforms is another step, giant or small, depending on how one chooses to see it, towards women inclusion, autonomy and mobility in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to slacken the Kingdom’s strict conservatism. 

Recent reforms also include allowing women suffrage in 2015, the lift of a driving ban on women in 2017, allowing women attend football games, allowing them to take on jobs that are outside the confines of traditional gender roles, the establishment of movie cinemas, and the organization of music concerts.

Reema Bandar Al-Saud, the Kingdom’s first female ambassador to the United States, confirmed the report in a series of tweets stating that the new laws are designed to elevate the status of Saudi women within the society. 

“These new regulations are history in the making. They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society,” she said. “It is a holistic approach to gender equality that will unquestionably create real change for Saudi women.”

However, as the news of this reform is received mostly with excitement, it is worthy of note that the Kingdom still has several sexist laws in place that may make the enforcement of these new reforms difficult and therefore weaken its desired impact. For example, women barely have legal status. They can neither pass on citizenship to their children nor grant them consent to marry.  

Women still need the authorisation of a male figure to own a business, get married or divorced, access basic entitlement should her father or husband die, and get bail if detained. The Kingdom also practices Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam that insists on the literal interpretation of the Quran, hence a ban on the mixing of sexes at public events, a rule duly enforced by religious police.

Until these sexist laws are completely abolished and the male guardianship system completely dismantled, the new reforms will only be superficial and its implementation, problematic. 

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