Saudi courts to notify women of divorce via text message

Justice minister says new law will help make divorce cases more transparent

Women and children pass the shuttered entrance to a closed store during prayer time at the Al Yasmin mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017. After relying on oil to fuel its economy for more than half a century, Saudi Arabia is turning to its other abundant natural resource to take it beyond the oil age -- desert. Photographer: Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg
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Divorced women in Saudi Arabia will be notified of their marital status via text messages, a move aimed at preventing wives from being unwittingly divorced by their husbands.

From Sunday, Saudi courts must notify women on divorce rulings.

Justice Minister Sheikh Waleed bin Mohammed Al Samaani said the text message system will help make legal proceedings in divorce more transparent.

"It's a simple solution to the problem of women sometimes not being aware of the legal procedures that are taking place in the divorce," Abdulla bin Ateeq, a divorce lawyer in Saudi Arabia told The National.

The legal rules, which are changing in a reinterpretation of Sharia, stipulate that men can divorce women by making a verbal statement of intent, and getting the divorce verified by a court. The wife's consent is not required.


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Women have few legal options when their husbands chose to divorce them and are subject to the patriarchal nature of the Kingdom's law. Men in Saudi Arabia not only posses the power to divorce their spouse by uttering the words "you are divorced", they can also restore the marriage through verbal intent.

Without the appropriate resources, women become trapped in these legal proceedings.

Until last year, female Saudi citizens were subject to the “House of Obedience” — a law that saw a verbally divorced wife forced to return to her spouse if he chose to reverse the decision before taking it to court. It also meant women were bound to their husband's side unless they got a divorce — not easily obtained by women.

Though new laws have been implemented, it remains significantly hard for women to divorce men. According to Saudi law, a woman must have a reason for divorce and evidence of abuse in order to justify it.

Divorce cases inside the conservative Kingdom have risen dramatically in the last decade, standing at 45 per cent today, versus 21 per cent 14 years ago. In 2018, more than 53,000 couples split in Saudi Arabia.

The spike in divorce rates has also triggered a slow but steady shift in the country's collective mentality, whereby divorced, "barren" or "unsuitable" women are not as stigmatised as they once were. The marginalisation of female divorcees has also lessened as as failed marriages have increased, and the once impossible prospect of a divorced woman remarrying has become possible.

Others The National spoke to attributed the rise of divorce to women empowerment. With the ability to pursue professional and educational careers, women are no longer exclusively dependent on their husbands for their livelihood, making the prospect of divorce an option that is no longer considered taboo.

Nada Hariri is a divorce coach who works with both male and female divorcees in Saudi Arabia. She holds personal and group counselling sessions to help them through the emotional challenges and societal pressures.

“It wasn't as it was before, like a stigma or some tragic occurrence that a divorce has happened in a family. It’s not like that anymore...people are willing to accept that divorcees are among them and they can be successful. Many are remarrying and continuing their lives,” she said.

Another challenge she said was coordinating co-parenting between the divorced couple, which she says requires “better communication” from both ends.

Last year a new law was implemented allowing women to retain custody of a child after a divorce without engaging in legal proceedings. Previously, women were given custody until the age age of nine at the latest, in order to fulfill their "motherly duties”, before handing over custody to the ex-husband.

"Our government is going through giving women their rights, and making things easier for them," Ms Hariri said.

Saudi Basic Law states that the family is the foundation of Saudi society and that the state will work to strengthen it. Guided by that law, the government is trying to reduce the rise in divorces in order to prevent what it considers a threat to the foundation of Saudi society.