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Saudi Arabia: Proposed Change to Give Widows, Divorced Women More Independence

(Dec. 7, 2015) According to a December 2, 2015, report in Al Riyadh, a state-aligned newspaper, women in Saudi Arabia who are divorced or widowed will soon be able to transact some business without prior approval of a male relative or a court order.  The report stated that the Interior Ministry will issue family identity cards to widows and divorced women, not only to men as in the past.  With these cards, the women will be able to access records, register their children in schools, and consent to medical procedures.  No start date for the change was indicated.  (Divorced and Widowed Saudi Women to Get Greater Legal Powers, JAKARTA GLOBE (Dec. 2, 2015).)

At present in Saudi Arabia, women are considered to be wards of male relatives, whether fathers, husbands, or in some cases brothers.  They need permission from a male family member or have to apply to the court for approval to take action in a whole range of areas in which they interact with state offices, including matters related to health and education.  (Id.; Hugh Miles, Saudi Arabian Divorced Women and Widows to Get Greater Legal Powers, GUARDIAN (Dec. 2, 2015).)  For the time being, divorced women continue to be listed on the family card of their ex-husbands, thus depending on the men to make decisions that affect the women and their children, unless a court order is obtained on the basis of which they can obtain a separate card.  (Miles, supra.)  Family status cases currently burden the courts, accounting for 65% of cases.  The recent change may therefore both give some women more independence and free up court time.  It will not, however, apply to married women or to women who have never married.  (Divorced and Widowed Saudi Women to Get Greater Legal Powers, supra.)

One divorced woman was quoted as being in support of the change, stating, “[i]t is difficult being a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia but this is a very big change.  These changes will solve both the legal and cultural problem.”  (Miles, supra.)  She added, “Saudi law says if a woman’s husband says her kids will not go to school, then they will not go to school.  But now she can take the children to whatever school she wants, away from the husband’s will.”  (Id.)