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Saudi Arabia: much-touted personal status law discriminates against women - new briefing

Saudi women still face numerous restrictions on their freedoms © FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

New law introduced a year ago after human rights claims from Crown Prince 

Women need male guardian’s permission to get married, have limited rights to initiate a divorce, and father automatically becomes children’s guardian in separation cases

‘Saudi Arabia’s personal status law fails to respect women’s agency in making crucial decisions about their lives and the lives of their children’ - Heba Morayef

Saudi Arabia’s personal status law - passed a year ago today and touted as a major women’s rights reform by the Saudi authorities - perpetuates the country’s notorious male guardianship system and codifies discrimination against women in most aspects of family life, said Amnesty International.

In a detailed 11-page briefing, Amnesty has found that while the new law does introduce some positive reforms, such as setting a minimum age for marriage, it also codifies some of the practices inherent in the male guardianship system, fails to adequately protect women from domestic violence, and entrenches a system of gender-based discrimination in marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. 

The law was part of a package of legislative reforms announced by Mohammed bin Salman in February 2021 in order to “preserve rights, bolster the principles of justice, enforce transparency, protect human rights and achieve comprehensive and sustainable development”.

Prior to the law’s introduction, matters relating to family life in Saudi Arabia were subject to a judge’s discretionary application of Islamic law. The personal status law limits discretionary and inconsistent judicial rulings related to family matters - but Amnesty’s has found that the law leaves significant scope for judges to still exercise their discretion.

The law fails to adequately protect women from domestic violence - instead it entrenches patriarchal gender roles by expecting women to “obey” their husbands. It also makes women’s financial support from their husbands during marriage conditional on wives “submit[ting]” themselves to their husbands. Such provisions place women at risk of exploitation and abuse, including marital rape, which Saudi law does not criminalise (see below for further analysis of the law). 

For years, the Saudi authorities have arrested, imprisoned and sentenced Saudi women’s rights activists who campaigned against the male guardianship system. Even those released after imprisonment now face travel bans and restrictions on their freedom of expression. Human rights activists have told Amnesty that these activists were denied the opportunity to provide input into the personal status law. 

Women who face challenges in relation to marriage, divorce and child custody under the law remain unable to speak freely about their concerns for fear of repression by the authorities. 

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said: 

“Although framed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a step towards progress and equality, Saudi Arabia’s personal status law fails to respect women’s agency in making crucial decisions about their lives and the lives of their children, and perpetuates discrimination against them.

“To achieve true progress, the Saudi authorities must uphold their obligations under international human rights law by urgently amending the personal status law and repealing provisions that discriminate against women, including those related to the male guardianship system.”

Discriminatory aspects of the law 

Under the new law, women - unlike men - must have the consent of a male legal guardian to get married and for the marriage contract to be validated. Under the law only men have the unconditional right to initiate a divorce. The law stipulates that a woman should be “informed” of the divorce and entitled to financial compensation if she has not been informed, while a woman has no right to unilaterally end a marriage.

In all cases of marriage dissolution, the personal status law disadvantages women economically. In cases of khula’ (separation) and faskh (an annulment of marriage pronounced by a court), in which women are able to initiate the dissolution of a marriage, they face legal and financial barriers codified in the law that only apply to women. A separation may be initiated at the wife’s request but it requires a husband’s consent and can only be granted if the wife repays her dowry. A woman may only obtain a marriage annulment in a limited set of circumstances, including illness, the husband’s refusal or inability to provide financial maintenance, or mistreatment of the wife “where the harm is proven”. The burden is on the woman to prove the harm, and the law may require the couple to go through an adjudication process lasting up to two years. 

In the event of a separation, a mother does not enjoy equal rights with the father in matters relating to their children. Although the mother is automatically granted custody, the father remains the child’s legal guardian with decision-making powers. The law also makes it difficult for divorced mothers to travel with their children, relocate overseas or remarry. 

The law also discriminates against women with regard to inheritance by giving men a much larger share of assets than women. 


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