Saudi Arabia’s reform program continued on Monday with a statement from the Information Ministry that women will now be allowed to retain custody of their children after a divorce.
Under the old rules, child custody was given to men by default, and women had to petition the courts in a lengthy and often futile procedure to win custody. The new rules still do not provide a level playing field for mothers, but at least they have a chance at obtaining custody without winning a lawsuit, as explained by the Khaleej Times:
The mothers can carry out the formalities for child custody at government offices, embassies, education offices and institutions.
Besides, they can also apply for and collect her children’s passports, as well as collect all child support and maintenance from government and civil entities. However, she would not be able to travel with her children outside the country without a judge’s permission.
The statement from the Saudi judiciary reads, in part:
The Higher Council of the Judiciary has studied the matter and decided that a mother may submit a probate application to the competent court for certifying her custody of her children, provided she signs an acknowledgement of no existing disputes.
For granting custody to a mother, the judicial panel considers her capacity for custody and then determines her application in accordance with Shariah and legal requirements, without the need for initiating a lawsuit, as is the case with all probate certifications indicated in Chapter 13 of the Law of Civil Procedure.
CNN adds that divorced mothers are now allowed to conduct the legal affairs of their children and keep their passports, which is “a significant step for a country where women still require a male guardian’s consent to travel, divorce, get a job or have elective surgery.” However, divorced women must still obtain permission from a judge before taking their children out of the country.
Domestic abuse activist Samira al-Ghamdi told CNN that even with the remaining limitations, recent progress on women’s issues has been “amazing.”
Virtually every report on the new divorce rules credits Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his “Saudi Vision 2030” reform plan for liberalizing the legal restrictions against women, such as the ban against women driving. The Vision 2030 plan as originally published does not say much about legal equality for women; it calls for increasing their representation in the Saudi workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent.
The plan declares Saudi women are “yet another great asset” for the country, notes that over half of university graduates are now female, and calls on the government to “develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities, and enable them to strengthen the future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”
The reforms that have generated so much excitement were presented as means to that end; for example, it is harder for Saudi women to work if they cannot drive cars. The UK Daily Mail notes another reform rolled out in February allows women to open businesses without the consent of a husband or major relative.
“While women still face a host of restrictions in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor’s office this month said it would begin recruiting women investigators for the first time,” the Daily Mail adds. “The kingdom has also opened 140 positions for women at airports and border crossings, a historic first that the government said drew 107,000 female applicants.”