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Saudi Arabia: Divorce by text

With high-profile changes to legislation like the lifting of the driving ban on women driving in September 2017, developments have been made towards greater gender equality in Saudi Arabia. Reforms in divorce law such as the new text message system are fundamental to this. However, there is still clearly a long way to go…

From Sunday 6th January, women in Saudi Arabia will be notified of divorce by texts. According to local female lawyer Al-Hindi, “Saudi men in the past obtained divorce deeds from courts without the knowledge of their wives and without informing them of their new marital status,”[1]. The new regulation by the Justice Ministry aims to prevent situations where women are the last to know about their divorced marital status[2]. Once a man obtains a divorce decree, a text message will be sent to the divorcee containing the number of the divorce document, and the court that issued it.

Justice Minister Al Samaani said that the reformed system will contribute to making legal proceedings in divorce more transparent[3]. Lawyer Al-Hindi reported that courts in Saudi had heard cases where women had continued to live with their ex-husband because they were unaware that they had been divorced[4]. Such situations left women vulnerable to exploitation by their ex-husband via misused power of attorney. They were also unaware that they may be entitled to alimony[5]. The transparency provided by the new system ensures that women are aware of their protected rights. Whilst this is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. Suad Abu-Dayyeh from global rights group, Equality Now, said that knowing about the divorce does not mean women are automatically entitled to alimony rights, or to the custody of her children[6]. In fact, custodianship still goes to the father by default[7]. Given that the divorce rate in Saudi Arabia is around 45%, this means around 50,000 women could lose custody of their children every year.

Evidently, a lot of progress is still needed to counter the gender inequality surrounding divorce law. When a man decides he wants a divorce, there is nothing a Saudi woman can do to protect the validity of her marriage[8]. For perspective, the recent UK decision of Owens v Owens should be noted; it attracted widespread criticism by setting out that divorce can be obtained by either spouse without the consent of the other after five years of separation, under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973[9]. In Saudi, a man just needs to state his intention to end his marriage and without legal justification the divorce will take immediate effect. Social consultant and researcher Salman Bin Mohammed Al-Amri comments that a divorced woman in Saudi faces society’s harsh judgment, a weakened financial position, and are often forced to return to their family’s[10]. Should a woman wish to divorce, she must get her husband’s consent or alternatively present evidence to a court of physical abuse[11]. Adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion - which are valid grounds for divorce in the UK under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and generally for most fault-based systems in Europe - are not qualifying reasons for a woman to get a divorce in Saudi Arabia. In practice, it is almost impossible for women to end their marriages this way, and thus many are forced to remain in unhappy marriages.

In conclusion, although the text message system is a step in the right direction, it is only a minor step towards achieving gender equality in Saudi. It remains practically impossible for women to divorce, whilst men may do so immediately on demand. Once divorced, women often become social outcasts and are ultimately returned to the confinement of male guardianship under their family. They are still required to have male permission to marry, travel and to open a bank account[12]. Clearly, there is still a long way to go.

Sarah Murray

Freelance Writer

9 January 2019


[1] ‘Divorce Notice by SMS’ (2019)

[2] ‘Divorce Notice by SMS’ (2019)

[3] ‘Saudi women to be notified of divorce via text message’ (2019)

[4] ‘Divorce Notice by SMS’ (2019)

[5] ‘Saudi women to be told of divorce by text message under new law’ (2019)

[6] ‘Saudi women to be told of divorce by text message under new law’ (2019)

[7] ‘Divorced Saudi women win right to get custody of children’ (2018)

[8] ‘Saudi women to be notified of divorce via text message’ (2019)

[9] Owens v Owens [2017] EWCA Civ 182

[10] ‘A rundown on reasons for rising divorce rate in Saudi Arabia’ (2018)

[11] ‘Marriage & Divorce: All you need to know about Muslim marriages’

[12] ‘Saudi women to get divorce confirmation by text message’

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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