In this file photo taken on April 29, 2018 a Saudi woman practices driving in Riyadh, ahead of the lifting of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia in the summer. - Saudi Arabia will allow women to obtain passports and travel abroad without approval from a male "guardian", the government said on August 2, ending a longstanding restriction that drew heavy international criticism. (Photo by Yousef DOUBISI / AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States announced on Friday (August 2) that the country had moved to drop restrictions on women’s free travel, as part of a “holistic approach” to gender equality by the monarchy.

The timing is ironic, just days after Loujain al-Hathloul – a leading figure in the Saudi women’s rights movement – turned 30 years old while serving time in jail.

She, and other key rights trailblazers, entered their second year behind bars this summer. Their official offense was treason, but fellow Saudi activists say the underlying message was that change in the kingdom shall come only from the top.

Saffa, a Saudi visual artist and founder of the “I am my own guardian campaign” against the guardianship system, says the timing of change and leaks to the press were deliberate – arriving just as rights groups were set to launch a new campaign for Hathloul’s release.

She also noted that the change is useless for women with family members who choose to put them in state shelters for perceived offenses.

“There are countless women locked up in so-called protection homes (Dar Al Reaya) wasting away and living in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture with no real solutions to their problems with their guardians. What good is allowing women to drive going to do for these women?” she said.

“Before we all start rejoicing these reforms, we need to remember that the Saudi government has set the bar so low for human rights that any minor reform will always seem monumental,” she added.

Chink in the armor

And yet the change – allowing women to apply for passports and travel without the consent of a male guardian – is historic.

Alia al-Hathloul, the sister of Loujain who publicly condemned her sister’s torture and sexual abuse in detention, was jubilant over the announcement on Twitter.

“Congratulations … to every woman [employee or housewife] and man, public or private employee, teenage girl or boy, who raised the awareness of state institutions – whether by a passing conversation, discussion, article, chant, or complaint,” she said. 

Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, appeared to acknowledge the changes were long overdue, but part of a grand vision.

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, sees women’s greater participation in the workplace as a key component of economic progress, part of his Vision 2030 program.

By easing restrictions on the ability of women to drive, start a business, obtain necessary legal documents and now travel, he is setting the stage for their full participation in the economy.

The reform program does not, however, envision political change that could in any way challenge the nation’s authoritarian governing model. The jailing of women’s rights advocates one month before the driving ban was lifted last year was interpreted as a warning against linking activism to change.

Ahead of the news

The past year has been marked by repeated cases of young Saudi women running away from home to escape the guardianship system.

Their requests for asylum have shed an uncomfortable glare on the kingdom’s restrictions on women at a time when it is eager to court international investment.

When 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qanun barricaded herself in Bangkok’s main airport in January and launched a viral plea for asylum, the Saudi charge-d’affaires was caught on camera scolding Thai authorities that they should have confiscated her phone.

The presumption of authority over an adult offered the world a window into enduring Saudi laws and social attitudes that govern the lives of women, regardless of age or whether they are no longer considered a minor by the United Nations.

Hathloul herself was brought back to Saudi Arabia by force in March 2018, after being detained in the neighboring United Arab Emirates and put on a plane back to the kingdom, according to fellow activists.

Saudi authorities have eased an untenable position by granting women the right to travel. They have also opened the door to further change that may be less in their control.

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