Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud allowed women to drive for the first time last year.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on August 2, 2019

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has lifted some restrictions on women in the largest sovereign state in the Middle East.

In a royal decree issued by the Crown Prince on Friday (local time), women over the age of 21 can, for the first time, apply for a passport without authorisation from a male guardian and for the first time do not need male permission to travel.

Women in Saudi Arabia are also to be allowed to register childbirth, marriage or divorce – things that only men have been permitted to do.

The decree also covers employment regulations that expands work opportunities for women. Under the rule, all citizens have the right to work without facing any discrimination based on gender, disability or age, the BBC reported.

In 2016, bin Salman unveiled a plan to transform the economy by 2030, with the aim of increasing women’s participation in the workforce to 30% from the then 22%. He lifted a driving ban for women last year.

Saudi Arabia has long endured international censure over the status of women, with human rights groups stating women are treated as second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian for important decisions throughout their entire lives, regardless of age. There has been systematic discrimination against women, who are left exposed to domestic violence under a male guardianship system and have had precious few places to turn when they face abuse, leading some women to undertake dangerous escape attempts to flee the country.

In January, Canada granted asylum to 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. She fled Saudi Arabia and tried to escape to Australia. She ended up in a stand-off in an airport hotel room in the Thai capital Bangkok, where she appealed for international help.

Other high-profile escapes from Saudi Arabia include sisters Maha and Wafa al-Subaie, who fled their alleged abusive Saudi Arabian family and arrived in Georgia on April 17 and have been relocated to an undisclosed third country.

“We decided to leave Saudi Arabia because life there had become unbearable from the torture. We were threatened and abused daily by our family, father and mother and brothers,” Maha said in an interview with RFI.

Sisters Dua and Dalal al-Showaiki have been hiding in Istanbul, Turkey, for six weeks after fleeing years of alleged abuse by their father in Saudi Arabia. The sisters, 20 and 22, are hoping to be granted asylum in Canada.

Dalal has told of her family life being like a “jail” in which she was unable to make her own decisions.

“If sometimes my father told us, like, ‘This morning, you can’t go to school at your college.’ I can’t complain to anyone.”

The situation is worse for Dua, who realised as a teenager that she was a lesbian. Homosexuality is considered a crime in Saudi Arabia and is punishable by death or flogging.

“It’s so hard for me to live in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I don’t have any future there.”