Saudi Arabia: Guardianship System Proves Stronger than Women’s Travel Restriction Reform

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Women are now allowed to obtain a passport, but the guardianship system still restricts women’s freedom of movement. For women, applying for travel documents in Saudi Arabia is legally easier than leaving their house.

Last August, Saudi Arabia permitted women over 21 to apply for a passport, but it did not protect them from the restrictions of the guardianship system. While the Saudi law now allows women to have a passport, at the same time guardians can file a case against women for taghayyub (“absence”) and for “disobedience”. This way, the Saudi reform left a massive loophole in favour of guardianship control.

The August reform was welcomed as a step in the direction of gender equality, but it soon proved a reform easy to sidestep. Right now, guardians cannot stop women from having a passport, but they can declare them missing to the police, who will then find and forcibly return them. In much the same way, guardians can use the guardianship system to seek a court order and prevent women from travel.

The women who are declared missing, blocked from traveling, or are arrested for disobedience might end up in “shelters”, like Dar AlReaya, that are detention facilities. In Dar AlReaya women are flogged, their menstrual period controlled, and often their guardians leave them there as retaliation.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to abolish the guardianship system in its entirety. Until this occurs, reforms will prove to be cosmetic and women will remain second-class citizens.