Saudi Women No Longer Need Ex-Husbands’ Permission to Care for Their Kids

Under current laws, former husbands or male guardians maintain control over women’s lives.
(Photo: Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images)
Dec 2, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

For the entirety of a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia, she is legally considered a minor under the care of men. Though women still need a man to drive their car or to give them permission to travel outside the country, the oil-rich beneficiary of billions in American military hardware will now grant some women more autonomy over their lives.

Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry will begin issuing family identity cards to divorced and widowed women, Reuters reports. Previously, only men had access to the cards, which allowed them to handle everything from medical records to school enrollment for all members of their family. Women who are married or single still can’t get the cards, and wives can rarely initiate divorce proceedings.

Because women in Saudi Arabia are legal wards of men—typically a husband, father, or brother—for their entire lives, those whose guardianship has been passed to a man no longer present in their lives, either by death or divorce, are left with few options.

After a divorce, a woman’s guardianship stays linked to her ex-husband. While the divorced man can remarry and go about his life, his ex-wife still must go to him for approval when making decisions for herself or her children. If the man refuses to cooperate or denies permission for a child’s school enrollment or health care, the woman’s only recourse is to take him to court. According to local newspaper Al Riyadh, this was a factor in the government’s change of policy: Family status disputes account for nearly two-thirds of all cases in Saudi Arabia’s strained court system.

As the only nation that requires women to be accompanied by men at all times and bans women from getting behind the wheel, Saudi Arabia is often regarded as one of the most oppressive countries for women, ranking in the bottom 10 percent in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 global gender gap report. But rights activists say the new ID card rule is an important step toward empowering women—and far more valuable than a driver’s license.

“If you asked me which was more important, this or driving, I would tell you a hundred times this,” Salwa al-Hazza, a member of an appointed government council, told Reuters. “It gives Saudi women the right to identify herself as head of the family, to put her children through school, get them married.”

The move to grant some women ID cards comes less than two weeks before women will vote for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections.