A new legal process will allow divorced mothers in Saudi Arabia to retain custody of their children without filing lawsuits, according to a statement by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information’s Center for International Communication, citing an official circular from the Minister of Justice.
“Mothers can now submit a request to the relevant court, instead of fighting a legal battle to retain or win the custody of their children,” the statement said, adding that the law will only work “provided there are no disputes between the parents."
Before this decision, Saudi women, following divorce, were required to petition courts for custody, a process that would sometimes take years to conclude.
“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," Sheikh Walid Al-Samaani, Justice Minister and President of the Higher Council of the Judiciary, said in a statement circulated to the courts.
The decision also gives divorced mothers the right to carry out all formalities related to their children at government agencies, embassies, schools, and to process the children’s passports.
“Furthermore, she can 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,” Samaani’s statement said.
The move reflects the ongoing efforts towards creating an equitable legal system for women in the Gulf kingdom as part of the Vision 2030 social and economic reforms spearheaded by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the past two years.
'Onward to full gender equality'
Activists and lawyers in Saudi Arabia have welcomed the new custody rules arguing that the previous process had negative impact not only on the mother but the entire family and particularly the children caught in the legal crossfire.
“In the past, the mother had to file a lawsuit for the right to custody of her children, and it could take a very long time. Protracted litigation over custody was hard for the mother, and there were litigation expenses too,” Jeddah-based lawyer Majed Garoub told Arab News.
Screenshot of the tweet by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
“It was a great strain for the mother, the father would be contesting her over custody, and the case would go the the court of appeal, and it could start all over again. However, now it is radically different. The priority of custody of children goes automatically to the mother,” he said lauding the new decision.
Even though the new process still favors the father as the default guardian in the eventuality of a divorce, activists have hailed the move saying it represents a step in the right direction to improve women’s rights in the kingdom.
Saudi author and opinion writer Fadila Al Jaffal applauded the latest decision. “More rights 4 Saudi women,” she tweeted.
“This added two recent lifting of law grants husband d right to force wife to return home against her will in a failed marriage (sic),” Fadila added referring to last month’s decision by the Saudi Ministry of Justice to cancel a law that gave husbands the right to force women who leave their marital homes to return to them.
Screenshot of the tweet by Saudi author and opinion writer Fadila Al Jaffal.
“This is real progress, affecting lives of millions of Saudi mothers and their children. Onward to full gender equality in divorce, marriage, child custody,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division said in a tweet.
"This is something that I've wanted every day. The progress that has happened at the Ministry of Justice when it comes to personal status issues, especially regarding women and children, has been amazing," Saudi domestic-abuse activist Samira AlGhamdi told CNN.
"It used to be that a woman would spend years in court just so she could see her children," she added, stressing she has been working for better rights for divorced women for 17 years.
The announcement comes six months after Saudi Arabia announced the lifting of the ban on driving for women. The landmark move will be implemented from June this year.