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Saudi Arabia Is Introducing Landmark Reforms for Women. But the Activists Who Pushed For Them Remain in Prison

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Grassroots women’s rights campaigns in Saudi Arabia helped advance sweeping reforms to the so-called guardianship system, regional experts say, even as prominent activists who have campaigned for greater gender equality remain in jail or on trial.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers announced their approval of a royal decree to reform the Kingdom’s wilayah, or guardianship, system, a jumble of regulations that Human Rights Watch has said constitute “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” The new laws, at least some of which are expected to go into effect at the end of August, indicate that women over the age of 21 will be able to obtain passports and travel abroad without requiring a close male relative’s permission. Reforms will also improve Saudi women’s protection against employment discrimination and grant a greater degree of autonomy over family matters, enabling them to register births, marriages or divorces — previously the purview of male relatives.

Published late Thursday, the new laws amount to “perhaps the boldest decisions implemented so far under the current leadership regarding the situation of women in the Kingdom,” says Eman Alhussein, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). On Twitter, Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed ambassador to the U.S. Princess Reema bint Bandar called the reforms “history in the making” and wrote that along with the easing of other restrictions on women, they proved the Saudi leadership’s “unequivocal commitment to gender equality.”

While human rights advocates have welcomed the “long overdue” move to begin dismantling the guardianship system, they note the reforms do not do away with it entirely: women will still require the permission of a male relative to marry or to leave prison or women’s shelters. Rights groups have also called for the release of imprisoned women’s rights activists who remain on trial or in detention in retaliation for campaigning to change that same system.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, often known as MBS, has overseen a gradual relaxation of laws restricting women’s freedoms and says he hopes to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030. Recent measures include an internationally promoted move to lift the ban on women driving, and a gradual blunting of the powers of the religious police. But the Crown Prince’s attempts to cast himself as a modernizing reformer have been undermined by his simultaneous crackdowns on dissident voices, and mounting criticism of Saudi Arabia’s role in the disastrous war in Yemen. A recent United Nations report said there is “credible evidence” linking MBS with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year. On the eve of Saudi issuing driving licenses to women for the first time in June 2018, the Kingdom jailed prominent women’s rights activists including Loujain al-Hathloul, who according to her brother has been tortured and threatended with rape in prison.

In spite of such crackdowns, experts say dissident voices have played a crucial role in expediting the latest changes to women’s legal status. A long running campaign called I Am My Own Guardian helped push the passage of a law in 2017 that ended the requirement for women to obtain male approval before accessing government services, according to writer Nora Doaiji. But outcry following the recent flight of several Saudi women from the country — including teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who fled to Thailand in January — has raised international awareness of the issue.

Rahaf’s skillful use of Twitter — broadcasting her plight while barricaded in an airport hotel room — led to U.N. intervention on her behalf and to her eventual asylum in Canada. It also inspired a viral social media campaign in which women in Saudi Arabia and abroad rallied around an Arabic-language hashtag that roughly translates as “remove the guardianship system or we’ll all migrate.”

Even speaking out online has been risky, however. Amnesty International told TIME in January it had previously documented instances of individuals being charged and, in some cases, handed down harsh sentences for simply expressing their opinion on social media. Still, Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGIW) says activist campaigns like the one that trended after Rahaf’s flight contributed to both “shifting opinion about women’s role in society and, importantly, made this social change and these demands apparent to the Saudi leadership.”

Saudi Arabia also issued a directive to its embassies not to pursue the return of women who fled, Diwan says. The royal court monitors social media and has undertaken polling to determine public opinion on social issue, and “presumably wouldn’t have implemented the changes if a sizable constituency were not in favor of them.” The August announcement came after reform was teased for several weeks in Saudi Arabia’s local press in what was perceived as an attempt to test public opinion on easing the guardianship system. “The growing number of women fleeing the country hindered the modernization efforts and was counterproductive to the Kingdom’s image abroad,” says ECFR’s Alhussein.

There is no indication the Crown Prince plans to ease the suppression of critical voices, and the Kingdom’s intolerance for dissent makes gauging public sentiment difficult. Over the weekend Saudi Twitter swelled with exuberant praise for MBS, alongside mock laments for men’s loss of control, and memes featuring women dashing with their luggage to the airport, alone.

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Write to Joseph Hincks at joseph.hincks@time.com