Under the tight-fisted tutelage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is moving glacially towards granting freedoms to women.
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Changes can be made by either visiting the civil affairs agency of the interior ministry or by booking an appointment on its website and following procedures. On this issue women have equality with men.
This is a small step in the prince’s efforts to empower women. The initial step was taken in mid-2018 when women were granted the right to drive and attend films and concerts alongside men for the first time in the then 86-year history of the conservative Saudi monarchy.
In 2019 women were given the right to apply for a passport and travel abroad without a guardian’s agreement or an accompanying male relative, lifting heavy-handed control over women’s freedom of movement.
While women have long been allowed to take jobs without a guardian’s permission, at this time they were given protection from discrimination in employment and empowered to register births and deaths, obtain family records, and make medical decisions about pregnancy and birth.
Women still need to apply to male relatives to marry, divorce, and leave prison or a domestic abuse shelter. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children, and male guardians still can file cases against women for disobedience, including absence from home.
These reforms have come from the top down rather than under pressure from women and their male supporters. The crown prince clearly considers activities of rights advocates lèse-majesté and has imprisoned scores of critical and campaigning men and women since becoming heir to the throne in June 2017.
Shortly before women were accorded the right to drive – making a breach in the wall of prohibitions – a dozen female activists were arrested for demanding this right and an end to male guardianship.
The most prominent of the detained women, Loujain Hathloul (31), was proclaimed one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2019.
Having spent 3½ in prison without trial, she was recently sentenced by a terrorism court to nearly six years, with two years and 10 months suspended, for “communicating state secrets” to foreign diplomats, organisations, and journalists, although she informed outsiders only about the ban on women driving and male guardianship. It remains to be seen if she will be released in March.
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