DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia published new laws Friday that loosen restrictions on women by allowing any citizen to apply for a passport and travel freely, ending a long-standing guardianship policy that gave men control over women.
The changes are a potential game-changer for Saudi women’s rights in the kingdom. The legal system has long been criticized because it treated women as minors throughout their adult lives, requiring they have a man’s consent to obtain a passport or travel abroad. Often a woman’s male guardian is her father or husband, and in some cases a woman’s own son.
The changes were widely celebrated by Saudis on Twitter, including posting memes showing people dashing to the airport with luggage and others hailing the 33-year-old crown prince believed to be the force behind these moves.
However, they also come amid a deep crackdown on political dissent in the kingdom — including on leading women’s rights activists. The new laws also drew backlash from conservatives on Friday, who posted clips of senior Saudi clerics in past years arguing in favor of guardianship laws.
Other changes issued in the decrees allow women to register a marriage, divorce or child’s birth and to be issued official family documents. It also stipulates that a father or mother can be legal guardians of children.
Being able to obtain family documents could ease hurdles women faced in obtaining a national identity card and enrolling their children in school.
Still in place, however, are rules that require male consent for a woman to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter or marry. Women, unlike men, cannot pass on citizenship to their children and cannot provide consent for their children to marry.
Under the kingdom’s guardianship system, women essentially relied on the “good will” and whims of male relatives to determine the course of their lives. There were cases, for example, of young Saudi women whose parents are divorced, but whose father is the legal guardian, being unable to accept scholarships to study abroad because they did not have permission to travel.
Saudi women fleeing domestic abuse and the guardianship system occasionally drew international attention to their plight, as 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun did before Canada granted her asylum. The stories of runaway women have created a flurry of negative headlines for the kingdom.
To leave the country, some Saudi women say they had to hack into their father’s phone and change the settings on a government app to allow themselves permission to leave the country. There were calls in Washington for Google and Apple to block access to the app entirely.
In a lengthy study of Saudi male guardianship laws in 2016, Human Rights Watch criticized it as “system that was ripe for abuse.”