RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When Hayfa’s first passport as an adult woman was placed in her hands on Wednesday, she first carefully felt the cover and then made sure it was actually her name printed beneath the words “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Then joy took over. The masters programs she’d dreamed of studying and the job offers she’d declined because her family wouldn’t let her travel were finally within reach.
“It feels empowering yet terrifying,” the 28-year-old said, asking for her last name to be withheld. “No one from the family knows yet,” she explained. “I don’t know how to ease them into it.”
Hayfa was one of the first Saudi women to be issued a passport without the consent of a male relative after the conservative Islamic kingdom eased its so-called guardianship system. For decades, women have needed permission from a father, husband, brother or even a son in order to marry, obtain a passport, leave the country or exit prison. While elements of the system remain, extensive amendments to travel, labor and civil status laws earlier this month were a major step toward dismantling it.
It was the latest set of changes unveiled in Saudi Arabia, where rapid reform has generated both excitement and uncertainty. In four years since his father became king, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has rolled out an economic overhaul and dismantled social restrictions, ending a ban on women driving and defanging the infamous religious police.
But he’s also cracked down on the limited political freedoms Saudis had, arresting religious clerics and many of the women’s rights activists who fought to end guardianship.
Saudi families are now grappling with how to adjust to a reality some of them never dreamed of.
“Congratulations, I can go to the passport office and get my passport without my guardian’s approval, now I just need my father to let me to go to the passport office,” went one joke widely shared on Twitter that pointed out the obstacles that remain for some women.
Traditionalists have already started grumbling, arguing that men should add conditions to new marriage contracts prohibiting their wives from traveling without permission. Like Hayfa, other women who shared their stories asked for their names to be withheld, saying they were worried about upsetting their families.
One 30-year-old said her direct relatives never left the kingdom and wouldn’t accept her traveling alone. She’ll try to convince them, she said, but wouldn’t travel without their approval because she’s afraid of the consequences.
Women who go against their families could potentially face legal charges from their guardians, something the government still needs to clarify, said Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies.
Still, waiting in a government office in Riyadh to apply for a passport, a 34-year-old woman smiled as she talked about being able to travel for the first time in nine years. After her father died, she wasn’t able to get a new passport because her brother wouldn’t help her.
Even women whose families already allowed them to travel freely said the new rules felt like a victory.
“It’s the first time I feel free and confident in our ability to determine our own fate,” said Faten Abdulrahman, 38.
Hayfa said her father had let her passport expire years ago, telling her that if she wanted to travel, she should get married. When the news broke earlier this month that the policy was changing, she shared stories with other women.
“It was wonderful to see the amount of pain being lifted,” she said, “and the courage that we have to take in order to do whatever we set our minds to.”
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Mohammed bin Salman