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.

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.

"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.

Many of the attendees – married, divorced, and single – had taken off their coatlike abayas since only women were present. For several hours, they listened and applauded as a dozen-plus speakers, on a stage festooned with flowers, addressed the legal, psychological, financial, and family problems faced by divorced women.

Judges often won't consider a woman's divorce pleadings unless she is accompanied by a male relative. In addition, Miss Zahid said, ex-husbands often face no legal penalty if they stop child support, snatch children from their mother, or fail to obtain the necessary papers for a child to attend school, a problem particularly acute in low-income communities.

She called it "wrong" that judges do not require wives to be present when husbands seek divorce, adding, "Sometimes a woman gets divorced and no one tells her! Imagine!"

"This is not in our religion. Ours is a very peaceful religion … we are not against religion," Zahid added. But "we need a law to stop this violence against women. It's as simple as that."

Legal problems are compounded by society's attitudes towards divorced women, who are often viewed with disdain, and blamed, even by their own families, for their marriages' failure.

Luluah al-Shammari, an educator from Dammam, said the mere fact of holding an event whose title included the word "divorce" would advance public awareness. "It's the first step to bring ... the divorce issue up," she said.

Like other women at the forum, Mrs. Shammari said part of the reason for the rising divorce rate is that young men are raised to believe they should totally control their wives.

They are taught that "you are the man, you have the power, you have the authority," Shammari said. "In the end, the man wants to take over this girl and not give her space. He deals with me as if I'm an employee, as if he has the remote control: 'Stand up!' 'Sit down!' Women can't take it."

The forum was proposed by Dammam-based journalist Haifa al-Khalid, who started the kingdom's first website devoted to divorce last spring: At the end of the meeting, Khalid read aloud the forum's 70-plus recommendations that organizers said will be presented to relevant official agencies.

The recommendations cited a need for marriage counseling services, and included demands that women's national identification cards be recognized in courts as a sufficient form of identification; that original copies of marriage contracts be given to both partners, not just the man; that DNA results be relied on if a husband denies paternity of a child; that official documents state "single," not "divorced," for women, as is the case with men, and that women be able to hire female lawyers to represent them.

Remove divorce's stigma

Another suggestion was for a national awareness campaign to remove the stigma of being a divorced woman. It is a stigma that Maha, training to be a human development officer, believes is sometimes self-inflicted. "So many women live in a box … [as if] it's written on their heads: 'This is a divorced woman.' They blame themselves because society blames them," she said.

After the shock of her divorce wore off, Maha determined that she would not "live in a box" and as a result, she became a different woman.

"I feel I became stronger than the Maha I knew before," she said. "I'm independent in my mind, in my decisions. I can put my mind before my feelings."

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