By Sabria S. Jawhar
15 June 2015
At first blush the Saudi Passport Department’s recent announcement that a study is under way to explore allowing women to travel without a male guardian’s permission sounds pretty cool.
But as has often been the case here in the Kingdom closer examination reveals that giving Saudi women more freedom “in line with laws of advanced countries” may fall in the category of “be careful of what you wish for.”
There are some major obstacles on the path toward achieving true freedom to travel without a man’s permission. For one, the proposed regulations, if approved by the Passport Department, would be based on travel needs and not age.
This opens the door for abuse because it allows government decision-makers to take away from the applicant the power of deciding what her needs are. Second, the ministries of justice, interior, social affairs and “other bodies” would be involved in granting permission for women to travel.
The proposed regulations at its present form can’t be described on any level as a model of efficiency and could very well slow down the approval process.
Imagine a minimum of four ministries putting applicants through myriad reams of bureaucratic red tape. By the time permission to travel without a guardian’s approval is granted, the applicants would all be old women.
Perhaps more worrisome is the involvement of the Ministry of Justice. The Justice Ministry has made some progress over the years in deciding domestic cases that are fair to women.
The ministry has also seen the admission of women in the lawyer ranks, although whether these new attorneys will be genuinely accepted and able to practice law in the courtroom remains to be seen. But many of the court system’s judges in rural areas remain steeped in tribal customs and traditions that lean heavily in favor of men. They still view women’s roles as homemakers with traditional roles confined to the home and the subject of a mahram’s control.
In addition, women still have problems asserting their identity in courts without a male guardian present. This begs the question of how an older judge serving a rural court would understand a young single woman seeking a passport so she may travel to learn a bit about the world. How would he react to a woman applying for a passport without a mahram, let alone respond to one that wants to leave the country without one?
If the Passport Department wants to make these changes because they now view women as adults making adult decisions, it’s inconceivable that they would require the input from multiple ministries, including one with a reputation for being not very sympathetic to women’s rights.
The Passport Department also doesn’t appear to take into account the family dynamics involving a mahram and women in the household. For example, young women are often prevented from accepting a university scholarship because the guardian may refuse to allow the woman to study aboard or he may take financial advantage of the student by demanding funds allocated for accommodations and living expenses.
The Saudi public also has no idea how the study will be conducted and there is no word whether the findings will be released.
If the proposed regulations are implemented improperly or with motives other than stated publicly, the outcome could actually make it more difficult for women to receive a passport, not easier.