New regulations around divorce are set to come into law in Saudi Arabia. They are aimed at ending the practice of ‘secret divorce’, which has previously allowed men to get a divorce without telling their wives. Secret divorce has meant that many women have been deprived of their rights to alimony - a real necessity in a country where many women face barriers to participation in the economy. In excluding women completely from divorce proceedings, secret divorce has allowed women to be exploited by a system which confers advantage to the man actioning the divorce.
But if you thought that the new regulations might herald groundbreaking progress, think again. The new law simply stipulates that courts must now inform women when they have been divorced by their husbands, so that a man can no longer end a marriage without his wife’s knowledge. And the worst part? Courts are obliged to do so via text message.
There is something ludicrous about this. Imagine a legal system with an infrastructure that enables courts to contact subjects of proceedings by text. But while Saudi Arabia embraces these modern methods of communication, it betrays its complete lack of modernity and sensitivity by treating women in this way.
The controversial triple talaq method of divorce still applies in Saudi Arabia. Under this system, a man can divorce his wife by saying the word talaq – or ‘I divorce you’ – three times. Essentially, if a man wishes to divorce his wife he can, there and then, without allowing the woman any chance to respond. Unsurprisingly, the system does not work the other way round. In fact, women who seek to divorce their husbands in Saudi must go through lengthy court proceedings while a judge deliberates on whether to permit the divorce or not. Until February 2018, a court could forcibly return women to the marital home after they requested a divorce.
The new texting system is no real attempt at reform, but instead seeks to ingrain the triple talaq method firmly in its changing society. As Saudi Arabia modernises in some respects, the courts have made it clear that only technological progress is acceptable. The abruptness and shortness of a text mirrors the nature of triple talaq, and is only a superficial attempt to involve women in their own divorces.
And this is the fundamental problem. Any system which allows a marriage to be dissolved by one party without the other being informed implies that one person was never really much part of that marriage in the first place. In Saudi Arabia, divorce is something done to women, and something they must simply accept. And just as they are legally passive in divorces, women hold the same status in marriages.
There is no minimum age of marriage in Saudi Arabia, and cases of girls under ten marrying men several decades their senior have made international headlines in recent years. Women must live under the system of male guardianship, which allows them little legal autonomy. Women have to seek permission from a male relative (a father, husband, brother or son) to open savings accounts, study or travel. In trials, women’s witness statements carry half the legal weight of men’s.
When a woman enters a marriage in Saudi Arabia, this right of guardianship transfers to her husband, usually from her father. Her husband becomes not just responsible for her, but her legal proprietor. A woman can be arrested for ‘disobedience’ if she does not do as her guardian instructs. Women in Saudi Arabia are, legally speaking, passive recipients of a man’s will in marriage. Just as with divorce, marriage itself is something done to women.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that a legal system which refuses to recognise that marriages should be unions between two equals, with emotional depth on both sides, allows marriages to be ended by text. Just like the cowardly and impulsive teenager who cannot face up to their responsibilities, ending their relationship with a curt break-up text, the Saudi legal system needs to do a lot of growing up. But what is understandable and even forgivable in a teenager is simply not permissable in the law of a country.
If new laws like this continue to be created and touted as progress, we will find that at its core, Saudi Arabia’s legal and societal treatment of women will not advance. Nominal steps like this mean nothing and, in this case, seek to embed archaic restrictions through modern methodology.