Scanning the departures board at Riyadh’s international airport, Eman tried to find her gate as she struggled with an oversized suitcase. She had travelled countless times before but always with her father, who had taken care of everything.
It was the first time the 26-year-old had flown alone and she was finding it all a bit daunting.
“My father didn’t like me going on trips without him or my brother, and I had always respected his wishes,” Eman, who asked that her surname not be published, told the Telegraph. “He was worried about what I would do if I had too much independence.”
Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, women had to rely on the permission of male relatives to leave the country and, in some cases, even to leave the home. But a royal decree issued in August ruled that women over the age of 21 could travel abroad and apply for a passport without a guardian’s permission.
Eman felt emboldened by the decree to tell her father that she would be travelling alone this time for a business meeting in Beirut, where she hoped to find new clients for her fledgling beauty company.
“He wants my business to succeed, but he is still a bit old-fashioned,” she said. “The guardianship laws are partly about protecting women, but I think part of it is has always been about control.”
Things have been changing quickly in the ultra-conservative kingdom as the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushes to modernise the country.
In less than a year, MBS, as he has become known, has dropped Saudi’s draconian ban on women driving, done away with the “hai’a” which policed their dress and sanctioned mixed gender gatherings.
But despite the reforms, women in Saudi told the Telegraph that the country’s laws continue to work against them to prevent them from travelling.
Male guardians can still file cases of filial "disobedience", a crime which can lead to forcible return to their guardian’s home or imprisonment in a women’s shelter.
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A legal provision known as "taghayyub" in Arabic, meaning “absent”, could also be invoked if a woman runs away from home without permission.
Just this month it was reported that Princess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdul Aziz, the youngest daughter of deposed King Saud, was arrested trying to board a flight from the city of Jeddah to Geneva.
The princess’ US lawyer said that following her detention the 55-year-old, who had campaigned for women’s rights among other issues, “just fell off the radar” and has not been heard from since.
“Even if they get to the airport with their documents and there is no physical restriction on their travel, women’s fathers or husbands could call up airport officials and tell them that they had been ‘disobedient’,” Ms Begum said. “There are still many parts of the law that continue to work against women.”
Ms Begum said the decision marked a big step towards dismantling the guardianship system, but cautioned that women’s rights were yet to be fully enshrined.
“The decree does not appear to positively affirm women’s right to travel abroad, as is their right under international law, and because it is not specific in its wording there are loopholes,” she said.
In another example, divorced mothers also spoke of how they feared they would not be able to travel with their children. More often than not in Saudi men win primary custody in a divorce, meaning mothers are required to get the permission of the father to fly with their children.
One woman, who holds dual Saudi-Canadian citizenship, said she wanted to her two children to see her parents in Ottawa but her ex-husband had not given her permission for them to go.
The royal court decision followed a series of high-profile cases of Saudi women attempting to flee the kingdom. Critics say they likely put pressure on a crown prince increasingly concerned about his image abroad, which has already been dented by the mass arrest of women’s rights activists and the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok in January claiming she had been imprisoned and abused by her father back in Saudi and wanted to claim asylum.
A few months later, sisters Dua, 22, and Dalal al-Showaiki, 20, escaped during a family holiday in Turkey, claiming they too had suffered at the hands of their father and were being forced into arranged marriages.
The rights of women have been held back not only by the country’s laws, but by its deep religious conservatism. In Saudi’s male-dominant culture, men largely have ultimate authority over women and many are resistant to the reforms.
Jawhara, 30, a housewife from Riyadh told this paper during a recent visit that she was lucky to have a supportive husband, but said there were many more women that do not.
“I think modern families like mine will allow their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives to travel freely, but you must keep in mind the reserved parts of society which makes up a significant chunk of the country,” she said, not wishing to give her full name.
“While change from the top matters there must also be change within the society itself. Women will continue to try to escape as long as they’re treated like second-class citizens and I am glad they now have the means to.”
The number of Saudis seeking asylum abroad has increased sevenfold in recent years. Saudis made at least 815 asylum claims worldwide in 2017, which includes both men and women, compared with 195 in 2012, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s database.
Rights group say this can be partly attributed to the opening up of social media in the kingdom, which has exposed women to freedoms experienced in the West.
Toby Cadman, a British human rights lawyer who is helping Dua and Dalal’s claim for asylum, told the Telegraph that he has been contacted by more than 10 Saudi women asking for help, several of which since the August decree.
“I had one recently who was the daughter of a Saudi diplomat in Africa. The woman was unmarried and in her 30s, so still considered to be under the protection of her father,” said Mr Cadman, co-founder of law firm Guernica 37. “She was effectively being kept under lock and key in the compound.”
Mr Cadman gave her the advice to try to escape, but her father had her passport and she was too afraid of the punishment she would receive if she was caught. “For her, and many others like her, it made little difference that the laws had changed,” he said.
In the case of Dua and Dalal, whose situation became public after they launched a Twitter campaign asking for help, the sisters’ parents have gone to some lengths to bring them home.
The father, whom they describe as controlling and abusive, asked the Saudi embassy to help facilitate their return. Staff told the sisters to come to the consulate to collect new passports, which Mr Cadman believes was a rouse.
Mr Cadman said there were common themes in all the cases: men fearing a loss of control over the women under their “guardianship” and familial honour.
“The new decree makes almost no difference at all to the average woman in Saudi,” he said. “It cannot just be a change in the law, it needs to be a change in the mindset, a change in thinking. That will take some time.”
Additional reporting by Nadia al-Faour