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Saudi women speak publicly about divorce

At a divorce forum, the first of its kind, women debated reforms to ensure better legal protections for women and children.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2008

Dammam, Saudi Arabia

Unlike many Saudi women her age, Maha did not have an arranged marriage. Instead, she wed a young man she'd known and liked since they played together as children.

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"Really, it's a love story," added the attractive, 40-something woman with short curly hair, who asked to be identified only by her first name.

That's why the divorce, and the way she found out, was a shock.

Maya was at her parents' home for a short vacation when her husband's brother came to the door and delivered the court decree: She and her husband of 10 years were no longer married.

"They don't ask the woman if she wants to be divorced," Maha said of the courts. "It was a very bad day for me. I didn't expect that. I knew there were problems but, I thought, we can solve it, especially as we were living together and we understood each other."

Maya's experience, not unusual, is just one of the inequities surrounding divorce that Saudi women have endured for decades. But if a recent gathering in the country's Eastern Province is any indicator, their patience with such inequalities is growing thin.

About 150 Saudi women filed into the auditorium of the local Chamber of Commerce in the city of Dammam to attend the Saudi Divorce Initiative Forum – the first privately organized, public discussion of problems faced by women during and after divorce.

The aim, organizers said, was to spark debate that would lead to reforms to ensure enforcement of existing, but often ignored, legal protections for women and children.

"We're doing something historic here," said Thuraya Arrayed, a women's rights activist who spoke at the forum. "For the first time, we are meeting together to look for a solution for a problem. It's a worldwide problem, and we're trying to find a solution."

Expanded public space for women

Like the first public conference on domestic violence last spring, the divorce forum was another example of the expanded public space that Saudi women have been given to speak about societal problems under the rule of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, whose picture was prominently displayed at the gathering.

"He's supporting women.... He gives us the right to talk," said Hind al-Zahid, manager of the Business Women Center, an affiliate of the local chamber of commerce that helped organize the forum.

The conference was also another sign of the concern about Saudi Arabia's rising divorce rate. The Ministry of Social Affairs reported earlier this year that it stood at 30 percent, although some experts say it might be as high as 60 percent, according to press reports.

The Nov. 25 forum, held to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, had an array of impressive backers: the Chambers of Commerce in Dammam and Jeddah, the Ministry of Social Affairs, a Saudi human rights group, and the Shura Council, the country's top advisory body. The women were encouraged that these organizations had openly supported their efforts.