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Saudi Arabia will allow women to travel abroad without permission from a male guardian, ending a restriction that came under heavy international criticism and led some women to take extreme measures to flee the country, according to the Okaz newspaper.

Authorities have approved amendments to laws governing travel documents and civil status, allowing women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and leave the country without securing the consent of a guardian, the paper reported on Thursday, without saying where it got the information.

The kingdom’s official gazette tweeted that amendments to travel rules, the labor law and civil status law would be included in its next edition.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put loosening social restrictions at the heart of his economic transformation plan for Saudi Arabia, which relies on diversifying away from oil and attracting foreign investment.

The government has clipped the powers of the kingdom’s infamous religious police, relaxed gender segregation and lifted a ban on women driving. At the same time, authorities have clamped down on domestic criticism and arrested some of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists.

Long campaign

The latest changes remove language that dictates a woman’s place of residence is with her husband and will allow women to report marriages, divorces and births similarly to men, Okaz reported.

Saudi women’s rights activists have campaigned for years against the conservative Islamic kingdom’s guardianship system, which renders women legal dependents of a male relative throughout their lives. Women currently need permission from their guardian – typically a father or husband, but sometimes a brother or son – to marry, apply for a passport or leave the country.

Many of the women who fought for an end to guardianship are currently banned from travel or are behind bars, including Loujain Al-Hathoul, an activist who turned 30 in jail this week.

Saudis who support weakening or abolishing the guardianship regulations rushed to celebrate and share jokes on social media, including one who posted a video showing a group of women leaving home with suitcases.

No tears

“A thousand congratulations to our girls, and no tears are shed for those who opposed this in order to protect their interests and authority,” Hamsa Sonosi, a Saudi female writer and researcher, wrote on Twitter. “From my heart, I’m rejoicing for the situation of many I know who suffer subjugation because of this issue.”

The amendments mentioned by Okaz would not completely dismantle the guardianship system, but they would be a significant move in that direction. They would also end a particularly visible restriction that was criticized at home and abroad; recently a spate of women have fled Saudi Arabia while their families were on vacation and claimed asylum abroad, often alleging abuse.

However a new policy on travel would likely frustrate some conservative Saudis and lead to clashes within families. Despite the rapid change, much of Saudi Arabia’s population is deeply traditional. Guardianship remains popular among many men and women who say they view it as a religious mandate that protects women.

With assistance from Sarah Algethami.

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