Saudi Arabia took another step this week toward easing its restrictions on women and inching toward fairer treatment for half its population.
In the last year, the Middle Eastern kingdom has announced that it will begin allowing women to drive, attend sporting events, start businesses, join the military, and now — according to a Saudi Information Ministry statement on Monday — to retain custody of their children in divorces.
Before the policy change, a divorced Saudi women had to file a petition to gain custody of her children, a legal process that could take years, CNN reported. But on Monday, Walid Al-Sama’ani, Minister of Justice and President of the Supreme Judicial Council, announced that divorced women are to be granted automatic custody of their children — upon request — so long as there is no dispute between the parents, according to Al Arabiya.
Though CNN reported that custody of children will still go to the children’s father by default, mothers can simply file an application for custody, rather than going through lengthy legal processes to see their children.
“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 said.
The change means that divorced women will be able to receive financial support for their children and manage their children's educations and other important matters, though they still cannot take their children out of the country without the permission of a judge, Al Arabiya reported.
In neighboring Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, similar laws, which automatically grant custody of children to their father, remain in place, according to CNN. But the policy reform in Saudi Arabia comes as part of the country’s “Vision 2030” initiative to grow as a “vibrant society” and “thriving economy.”
Monday’s announcement represents progress for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, though its male guardianship system still remains in place, meaning women still need a man’s permission — typically that of their husband or a male family member — to apply for most jobs, travel, or have elective surgery.
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