In a sign of just how oppressive Saudi Arabia has been toward women, a new rule aims to stop a practice that would be unthinkable in most places: husbands divorcing their wives without telling them.
Starting today (Jan. 6), courts must notify women by text message about rulings confirming their divorce. Knowing about their marital status will help women protect rights such as alimony, and ensures powers of attorney issued before the divorce aren’t misused. The text message will include the divorce certificate number and the name of the relevant court where women can pick up the documentation. They can also find out about their marital status through a website.
The new measure comes amid social and economic reforms pushed in recent years by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of his Vision 2030 plan. In June 2018, the country lifted its ban on women driving, a major milestone. Other measures have included a relaxation of women’s strict dress code, allowing women to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections, and decreasing the influence of the male guardianship system, which requires a woman to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
But there’s still a long way to go. By most standards, Saudi society remains incredibly repressive toward women. The guardianship system still prevents women from doing a number of important tasks on their own, including filing for divorce. Also among them, according to the BBC, are opening a bank account, getting married, applying for a passport, and starting certain businesses.
And the push to strengthen women’s role in society might not be happening at all if the country didn’t need to diversify its economy away from oil dependence. Meanwhile the crown prince’s reputation as a reformer was called into question by the murder in October of journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi, which many, including the CIA, believe the crown prince himself ordered.