Saudi women given more freedom to travel

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(Getty Images - Photo for illustrative purpose only)

(Getty Images - Photo for illustrative purpose only)

An electronic system that warns Saudi men when their female “dependents” are leaving the kingdom will be made optional in an historic move towards greater female independence.

In the conservative Islamic country, women must have their guardian’s permission to travel and until now every time a woman crossed a Saudi immigration point her male guardian – usually her husband if she is married, or father or brother if she is unmarried – was alerted via a text message.

A Passports Department official announced on Monday the system would be temporarily suspended and amended before being reintroduced with the option for men to opt out of receiving alerts.

“In the past, the system included all the names that were registered. However, in the next phase, it will be optional. The amendments seek to enhance the system to make it better and fulfil all its objectives,” Passport Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Al Laheedan told Arab News.

Women have given mixed reactions, with some praising the move but suggested it was long overdue, while others have called for it to be scrapped altogether, describing the system as demeaning.

“The notification process should have never been introduced in the first place because it is humiliating for women,” Saudi columnist and King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences assistant professor of applied linguistics Sabria S Jawhar told the newspaper.

“Women like myself who may have open permission from their guardian to travel find the issue particularly ridiculous because our guardians are notified of our every move as if we are children that need to be tethered to become responsible adults.

“We are responsible adults but are treated as immature or less responsible.

“I hope this is a step toward cancelling the whole system. We are born Muslim and we know the principles of our religion. There is no need for anyone, including the government, to monitor our behaviour.”

One Saudi blogger said the system was a good use of technology.

“Without such a system, a woman or a child would be free to come and go and travel abroad without her or his family knowing about it,” the blogger wrote.

“If such is the case, we will find many of our women and children going abroad without our knowledge.”

There are several cases in Saudi Arabia of women being effectively trapped in the kingdom because their husbands refuse to give them permission to leave, which is required by law.

In one of the most high profile cases, two female activists were each sentenced to ten months’ jail for taking food to a woman well known for her fight to leave the kingdom with her three children. The woman, a Canadian, claimed she was trapped in her apartment by her abusive husband.

The activists were convicted of the Shariah law takhbib, which means inciting a wife to defy the authority of her husband.

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