Riyadh’s modernizing reforms belie larger systemic issues
Saudi women were slated to begin receiving text messages in the event their husbands divorce them. The new initiative, which is being construed as a positive reform, comes on the backdrop of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s campaign to modernize Saudi Arabia.
“Before this decision, women were not even told that a divorce took place. [Now] they do not stand in the dark,” Dr. Elham Manea, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Zurich University, explained to The Media Line.
“Once a [Saudi] woman is married,” she elaborated, “the husband automatically becomes her guardian. She cannot work or travel without his permission [unless otherwise specified in the marriage contract.] If she wants a divorce, [the husband must] consent or [she must] prove harm which is a very difficult process or give up all her financial rights,” Dr. Manea noted.
By contrast, a man can dissolve his marriage contract at will, irrespective of how his wife feels, simply by saying the word “tallaq” [divorce] three times before a court, all of which are premised on Islamic Sharia Law in the ultra-conservative nation.
“In Western countries, the other party must be notified when one side files for divorce,” Henry Brookman, a United Kingdom-based attorney specializing in international family law, told The Media Line. “In Saudi Arabia, women are not represented in the proceedings and are not given prior notice that this is taking place.”
In this respect, the new text message procedure only informs women that their marital status has changed after the divorce process is complete.
Bin Salman’s courtship of women is part of an ostensible broader effort to ween Riyadh off of its oil dependence, a component of which entails incorporating females into a diversifying economy.
“He realizes that if women are to be given better opportunities in business, they must also have greater social and cultural freedom,” Dr. Brandon Friedman, Director of Research at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, conveyed to The Media Line.
A Saudi lawyer that spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity nevertheless stressed that the new divorce-by-text procedure “is more of an announcement than a legal change.” He also rejected the contention that women are treated as inferior during the court process, stating that “females that wants a divorce can come in any day without a guardian and I will represent them.”
Adam Coogle, Middle East Researcher at Human Rights Watch, argues that Riyadh is conscientiously making a mountain out of a molehill with the text message rule. “Saudi Arabia has gone to great lengths to create positive press over any reform, however minor or tangential, to show that the country is trying to improve women’s rights,” he affirmed to The Media Line.
Another modification recently introduced to the divorce system is that women no longer must endure a lengthy court process in order to maintain custody over their children if their husbands do not want them.
“Custody is a real nightmare for women,” Coogle said. “The courts automatically assign custody to the father once the child reaches a certain age [seven years for a girl and nine years for a boy].”
Women can also face financial hardships if their marriages fail, including sometimes being forced to return a dowry as well as losing rights to possessions obtained during the marital union.
Consequently, many hold that the House of Saud is failing to address what they view as the root cause of the state’s gender inequality: that is, the guardian system. Today, a Saudi woman is required to get male approval regarding where she can go to school, work and even undergo some medical procedures.
“All the problems women face stem from guardianship,” attorney Brookman explained. “They don’t have any legal standing; any rights they do have are filtered through the medium of their male guardian.”
Thus, the quality of a woman’s life is often dependent on the character of her guardian. “If he believes in her rights, she will exercise them; if he does not, she is doomed. The recent incident involving Rahaf Al Qanun, who fled her family and [was granted asylum in Canada], illustrates this point,” Dr. Manea of Zurich University related.
“The manner in which the Saudi regime dealt with activists that fought for the right of females to drive and the end of the male guardianship system—[through arrests and, in some cases, torture]—makes the likelihood of real change less likely,” she concluded.
Until then, Saudi women will be left waiting by their phones.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)