In May 2015, the Government of Saudi Arabia announced it would now grant women the right to obtain copies of their marriage contracts. Previously, Saudi officials only guaranteed marriage contracts to the grooms. Saudi Justice Minister Walid al-Samaani issued a statement saying the new initiative will “ensure [the bride’s] awareness of her rights and the terms of the contract.”
Brides now having state-sanctioned access to their marriage contracts allows for some new protections. This new announcement will help alleviate situations where previously a woman could not provide proof of marriage when a married couple took their case to court. For instance, in cases where the woman sought a divorce from her husband due to unhappiness or abuse, she was not able to legally prove they were married. This left her vulnerable to exploitation, as she was unable to receive financial entitlement after the divorce. Additionally, some Saudi women experienced deprivation of their inheritances after the death of their husbands. Denial of their inheritance was due to the wives’ inability to prove marriages in court.
Granting women access to their marriage contracts is a step forward for women’s rights; improvements remain. In divorce cases, the wife must be accompanied by her male guardian to the court. Often, that guardian is her husband. If the relationship is abusive and the husband is reticent about the divorce, he will deny her the ability to go to court. In this case, the wife having her marriage contract does not help her.
Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system limits most aspects of life for women, particularly in matters relating to her freedoms of movement and association. Women are forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia, and they must have the male drivers approved by their guardians. Thus, her guardian exercises almost total control over her mobility. By controlling her movement, he further deprives her freedom of association.
As Saudi women now have the right to obtain their marriage contracts, they are more protected in cases of divorce or the deaths of their husbands. The guardianship system itself is the main obstacle of women enjoying civil freedoms within the Kingdom. Small adjustments, such as granting women the right to obtain marriage contracts, will not disassemble the systemic injustices against women. Women in Saudi Arabia will not experience their full agencies until the Saudi government implements major reforms to the guardianship system or abolishes it as a whole.
Erin Sigmon is an advocacy fellow for ADHRB.