Saudi women now have right to travel with their children, following long campaigning

Saudi women now have right to travel with their children, following long campaigning
The new measure comes amid a raft of opaque reforms around women's rights issued by Saudi Arabia after the detention of women's rights activists last year.
4 min read
19 August, 2019
Children could only travel with the permission of their father before [AFP]
Saudi women will now have the right to travel with their children without the permission of their husbands, the latest in a series of opaque reforms issued by the ultraconservative kingdom.

It comes on the heels of a reform announced earlier this month finally allowing Saudi women over-21 to travel abroad without the permission of their male guardian - typically their father or husband.

While the new measures provide relief for many Saudi women, they have been criticised as a smokeshield behind which de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman can hide from accusations of widespread rights abuses.

The reforms are also opaque, with the future of men's role in the process unclear.

Critics wonder if male guardians will be given a loophole to object to Saudi women's newly autonomous decision making. 

Researcher Sophia Akram called the reforms a "sticking plaster on a gaping wound" in a recent op-ed for The New Arab. It is necessary to "take the new law with a pinch, or a tablespoon, of salt", she said, "because the reality of women being able to travel freely may not yet be realised".

Saudi mothers will be allowed to secure passports for their children and travel with them without permission from their husbands as part of the changes, Bloomberg reported on Monday.

In cases of divorce, whichever parent has custody of the child can apply for passports and issue travel permissions, details published on the website of Saudi Arabia's General Directorate of Passports explained.

That right was previously restricted to men, rendering it near impossible for divorced mothers - even if they had custody - to travel with their children.

The new guidelines also allow Saudi women under-21 whose fathers are dead to get approval from their mother, as opposed to another male relative.

Those under-21 will also not need permission to travel if they are married, traveling to study on a government scholarship or on "official duties".

Read more: Relaxing travel restrictions 'bittersweet victory' for Saudi women, as males still hold all the power

The lightening of travel restrictions on women this year follows the revocation of a long-time ban on women drivers in the kingdom last year.

The lifting of the ban was not without controversy.

It came just weeks after Saudi Arabia detained more than ten women's rights activists in a crackdown on dissent.

Many of them had been instrumental in the long battle for Saudi women's right to drive.

Critics of bin Salman say the arrests enabled him to take credit for the gruelling work of women activists. The same claim has been made with regards to the easing of travel restrictions on women.

The women, among them activist Loujain al-Hathloul, are currently part of an ongoing trial based on what Amnesty International has called "bogus" charges.

Hathloul, who turned 30 in prison a few weeks ago, is among a few of the women to allege she has faced torture and sexual harassment while in detention.

According to her siblings, the activist was told she could go free if she remained silent about the torture.

Amnesty this month renewed its calls for the women's release, saying that if the kingdom was serious about reform, it would drop the charges against them.

"The reforms [around travel restrictions]... are a testament to tireless campaigning of women's rights activists who have battled against discrimination for decades," the human rights organisation said in a tweet.

Akram said that Saudi men will likely have ample opportunity to override the new measures.

"After years of institutionalised male dominance… conservative elements in the country may struggle to reconcile with this new law and enforcement remains a question. While the decree goes into effect at the end of August, it's unclear what legal mechanisms or oversight will accompany it to ensure its enforcement," she wrote last week. 

"Male guardians can still ignore the law and not allow their female relatives to travel, placing women at square one. Women could still travel in defiance, which will bring on them another problem… that complaints of filial disobedience can still be filed by male guardians."