A step forward in gender equality for divorced Saudi mothers

When asked about the status of women’s rights dossier on 60 minutes, HRH crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman replied: “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go”.

When it comes to personal and familial matters, Saudi’s position remains largely abstruse. The country has the Quran and Sunna as it’s primary source of law and family courts refer to Hanbali jurisprudence in passing their judgments. The cases referred to family courts may be about divorce, marital disputes, guardianship or child custody to name but a few. The latter has been subject to numerable ministerial decisions in the past couple of years, mainly on a procedural level, that were aimed at making the procedure easier for mothers, tipping the scales in favor of the child’s best interest or alternatively curbing the powers of an abusive father.

The Ministry of Justice has recently published several articles regarding child custody. Beginning with an article that lays down the overall framework of reforms, including the decision that a custodian mother shall be given the right of guardianship over her children. This is not to be confused, in word play, with the heatedly debated male guardianship over women.  Guardianship in this sense translates to the ability to demand and receive her children’s papers at certain government agencies, by showing a guardianship certificate. Something she’s normally denied the right to do before such decision expressly granted it.

The most recent development was an assertion made by the Minister of Justice of a mother’s automatic right to custody post-divorce. The decision goes a step further in expediting a rather unnecessary delay by cancelling the requirement to take the case to court and making it a matter of a simpler formality. Without the need to file a lawsuit, mothers are able to apply to a panel at the ministry, which in turn will look at the request and decide based on the child’s best interest, given “the absence of an existing dispute at court regarding custodianship”.

Though the lot of introduced decisions and changes pertains to child custody, it was celebrated in the news and social media as a triumph for women. Perhaps one could thus conclude they are so celebrated because of their impact as a step toward more gender equality in custody or rather a victory against the unspoken misogyny in the Saudi court system making women’s lives harder.

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