Riyadh: Saudi Arabia will allow women to travel abroad without approval from a male "guardian", the government said Thursday, ending a restriction that drew international censure and prompted extreme attempts to flee the kingdom.
The landmark reform erodes the longstanding guardianship system that renders women permanently as legal minors and allows their "guardians" – husband, father and other male relatives – to exercise arbitrary authority over them.
The decision, following years of campaigning by activists, comes after high-profile attempts by women to escape their guardians despite a string of reforms including a historic decree last year that overturned the world's only ban on female motorists.
"A passport will be granted to any Saudi national who submits an application," said a government ruling published in the official gazette Umm Al Qura.
The regulation effectively allows women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and leave the country without their guardian's permission, the pro-government Okaz newspaper and other local media reported, citing senior authorities.
Women in the kingdom have long required permission from their male "guardians" to marry, renew their passports or exit the country.
The decision grants women "greater autonomy and mobility", said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"If fully implemented (this is) a big step in letting adult Saudi women take control of their own lives," Diwan added.
The pro-government Saudi Gazette newspaper hailed the decision as "one giant leap for Saudi women".
The ruling comes as Saudi Arabia faces heightened scrutiny over its human rights record, including an ongoing trial of women activists who have long demanded that the guardianship system be dismantled.
That includes Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent rights activist who marked her 30th birthday this week in a Saudi prison, campaigners said.
Alongside a sweeping crackdown on dissent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman –the kingdom's de facto ruler – spearheads a wide-ranging liberalisation drive that is aimed at transforming the conservative petro-state, long criticised for its treatment of women.