Saudi Arabia: Now slightly less terrible for women

Foreign PolicyJanuary 15, 2014 

Here’s what passes for progress for the Saudi Arabian women’s rights movement: The country’s passport office suspended a program that automatically notified via text message a woman’s male guardian if his charge was venturing outside the country’s borders, even if they were traveling together.

“The system has been suspended due to some observations, and it will undergo amendment,” Lt. Col. Ahmad al-Laheedan, the spokesperson of Saudi Arabia’s Passports Department, said this week. But after this “amendment,” the program may very well return. “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 fulfill all its objectives,” Laheedan said.

The program caused controversy when it was discovered in November 2012. Discovered because a man was automatically notified about his wife’s departure when he was traveling with her outside the country. It’s part of an electronic passport system that is meant to facilitate (male) Saudi citizens’ travel.

Arabianbusiness.com called the program’s suspension a “historic move towards greater female independence.”

That such a development would qualify as “historic” speaks for itself. AFP reported that activists “welcomed the suspension,” but shortly thereafter quoted an Arab News article in which Sabria Jawhar, a Saudi linguistics professor and columnist said, that the “notification process should have never been introduced in the first place because it is humiliating for women.”

The move will have little practical impact, as women still need permission from their guardian – husband, brother, father, and, sometimes even, their son – to pass through immigration. But that’s all if they are going outside the country. Being banned from driving, Saudi women can rarely travel farther than their feet can carry them without a male companion. Without the consent of their guardian, Saudi women can’t attend school, get a job, or receive medical treatment.

Some women in Saudi Arabia have begun protesting the ban on driving by defying the law that prohibits them from getting behind the wheel. That movement has garnered international attention and has cast a spotlight on a country often considered to be the world’s most repressive in terms of women’s rights.

For now, the driving ban remains in place. But, hey, at least in the future Saudi husbands will have to opt in to track their wives through passport control.

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