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On Women’s Rights, Uneven Progress in the Middle East

Looking forward.

Looking forward.

Photographer: Maya Anwar/Bloomberg
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Saudi Arabia has lifted its restrictions on women traveling abroad, the most notable weakening yet of the country’s notorious guardianship system. It marks another advance for gender equality, more than a year after the kingdom ended the world’s only ban on women driving. Yet many of the women who fought to end guardianship rules — which make women legal dependents of male relatives — are banned from travel or in jail, accused of undermining the state and having ties to foreign entities. Women’s rights are progressing unevenly in Saudi Arabia, as well as across North Africa and the Middle East, a region that regularly rates worst or second worst to sub-Saharan Africa in overall assessments of gender equality. The role of women is the subject of sustained public debate, with campaigns for equal treatment resisted by entrenched patriarchal and conservative forces.

Legal amendments approved by the Saudi king, which will take effect at the end of August, will allow women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel without securing the consent of a guardian. A woman’s place of residence will no longer be defined as with her husband, and women will be allowed to report marriages, divorces and births similarly to men. Some restrictions remain, such as the requirement that women get permission from a male guardian to marry, a rule also in effect in many neighboring countries.