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.

1. What will the new travel rules mean?

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.

2. What’s the origin of the guardianship system?

The guardianship laws mostly derived from a strict interpretation of a verse from the Koran, the sacred book of Islam. In 2016, activists presented the Royal Court a petition with 14,000 signatures demanding an end to the system. Some conservatives in the kingdom have long opposed such changes as contrary to Islam, and the policy shift could lead to clashes within families.

3. Why is Saudi Arabia loosening the laws?

The Saudi monarchy has an ambitious campaign to diversify the economy and wean the kingdom from dependence on oil revenue. If more women are to have paying jobs, they need to be able to move about more freely. Several high profile cases in which young women fled the kingdom also added pressure. In January, a young Saudi woman who fled from her family, barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok and demanded asylum became the poster child for a campaign to abolish the rules.

4. Where are women’s rights progressing in the region?

Advancements are most pronounced in Tunisia, birthplace of the pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring that started in late 2010. The country’s 2014 constitution, heralded by activists as a model, affirms equal rights and duties for male and female citizens and says the state will strive to achieve parity in all elected assemblies. Tunisia stands out as well for overturning legislation banning Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men — a prohibition still common in the region. Tunisia has also enacted laws against economic discrimination and harassment of women.

5. What advances have women made elsewhere?

Since the Arab Spring, seven of the 20 Muslim-majority countries and territories in the region have joined Tunisia in criminalizing domestic violence. They include Morocco, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Six governments have repealed colonial-era laws that allowed a rapist to escape prosecution by marrying his victim and thus preserve the “honor” of her family. And women are breaking into traditionally male spheres. The United Arab Emirates’s first female fighter pilot led the country’s initial airstrike against Islamic State in Syria in 2014. A Jordanian woman became the first from a Middle Eastern country to become a professional wrestler. One in three startups in the Arab World is founded or led by a woman.

5. Are women gaining political power?

Slowly. Women’s representation in national parliaments rose to an average of about 17.5% in 2017 from 4.3% in 1995; the global average is 23.4%. Mostly since 2010, 11 nations and the Palestinian Authority have adopted legislation to increase women’s participation in politics, mainly through quotas that ensure a minimum percentage as candidates for office — with Tunisia one of the few countries in the world to require equal gender representation across candidate lists. In 2011, Saudi Arabia became the last country to extend the vote to women. The U.A.E. elected the region’s first female parliamentary speaker in 2015, and a handful of women have won mayoral elections, including in Baghdad, Tunis and Bethlehem in the West Bank. Tunisia appointed a woman as deputy head of its central bank in 2018.

6. What are the biggest hurdles that remain?

Twelve of the 15 countries in the world with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in North Africa and the Middle East, according to a World Economic Forum report. Societal pressure remains strong, especially outside urban areas, for women to stay home. Obstacles to equality include disregard for and weak enforcement of rules against child marriages as well as laws giving a husband the right to unilaterally divorce his wife. Tunisia’s cabinet approved a proposal to equalize inheritance rights of sons and daughters, but Parliament failed to ratify it. It would have been a bold measure in a region where laws typically award daughters half of what sons receive, in line with conventional interpretations of Islam’s holy texts. In Egypt, a woman was detained for three months and given a one-year suspended sentence for complaining in an online video about sexual harassment.

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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at, Lisa Beyer, Anne Reifenberg

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