Saudi Arabian wives can no longer be divorced without their knowledge, after a court ruling came into effect on Sunday requiring courts to notify women by text message of the end of their marriages.
The ruling takes aim at divorces registered at courts by men who have not informed their wives that the union is over. In these cases, often referred to as secret divorces, women often end up missing out on alimony payments.
Saudi Justice Minister Sheikh Waleed bin Mohammed al Samaani said that by notifying women of the change to their legal status, the text message system would bring transparency to the legal proceedings around divorce.
Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, women are not able to marry, divorce or travel outside the country without the permission of a male relative, usually a father or husband. Human Rights Watch has slammed the system as an ongoing violation of the country’s human rights obligations.
While a man in Saudi Arabia can quickly and easily divorce his wife by making a verbal statement and getting the divorce verified in court, women seeking the end of a marriage must convince the courts with both a reason and evidence of abuse. This cannot be done without the consent of the woman’s male guardian.
The adoption of the text message system is the latest in a series of shifts designed to give women more freedoms. They are no longer banned from driving, and some restrictions on gender mixing and social and cultural life have been eased. The incremental changes have been driven by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whose Vision 2030 for a new Saudi economy relies on a more open country with more women in the workforce.
However, increasing numbers of female activists have been detained and critics say the reforms are too piecemeal.
“The government cannot achieve [Vision 2030] if it does not abolish the male guardianship system, which severely restricts women’s ability to participate meaningfully in Saudi society and its economy,” Human Rights Watch warned in a recent report.