Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, Jan 6th, 2019

I dvrc u

The surreal Saudi reform inaugurated by the Crown Prince MBS to give women more rights (at least some rights) has a new twist. In addition to being able to drive a car and to attend some football games (obviously two of the major concerns of women anywhere in the world), Saudi women will now be able to know when they are divorced by receiving a “marital status” message via SMS from the Saudi Ministry of Justice. This is, of course, a welcome change. In the past all a Saudi man needed to do in order to divorce his wife was to say “I divorce you” three times, even if she did not hear him. Fortunately even three times at once would easily fit into a standard SMS, even in a tweet. So the Ministry could simply forward the  husband’s divorce words to the wife, perhaps even with an appropriate emoticon.

I do see a potential conflict with other announced reforms. Imagine that a Saudi woman is driving a car when she receives an SMS from the Ministry of Justice saying she has been divorced. If she gets hysterical about this, there could be a major accident on the road. If she is happy to leave the guy, then she might be tempted to not return the car to her husband. I fear that this new law informing women of their divorce might tempt the authorities to stop married women from driving altogether, especially since use of the cell phone is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents. It is reported that 19 deaths from accidents occur daily in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the roads should be safe for Saudi men to have their own accidents without the danger of getting into an accident with a woman driver.

This “reform” is a telling reminder of how technology need not have a moral purpose, even if that is supposedly the reason for its use. The idea that a wife should know that she has been divorced, when she has no recourse to stop it, seems at first like a step forward. But the more important issue is the fairness, not the timing, of the announcement. Why should a man have the right to divorce his wife at will, easily coming up with any lame excuse to satisfy the authorities in the blatantly patriarchal system of the Wahhabis?  The timing issue is important, because one of the main principles in Islamic divorce is making sure that the wife is not pregnant, which is why there should be a period of waiting (‘idda) before the divorce can really be finalized. This has little to do with concern for the woman, but rather the husband’s right to claim any child he fathered.

I wonder what other information the Saudi Ministry of Justice could send in an SMS? Under the young Crown Prince there were 133 executions in Saudi Arabia between June, 2017 and March, 2018. It would seem only fair that a person likely to be executed be notified in advance, perhaps even with the type of execution described. In one day in July, 2018, seven people were executed in one day, which seems like an easy number to handle for sending an SMS. It would have been a lot more efficient if the Saudi hit squad ordered to Istanbul to murder journalist Jamal Kashoggi had sent back an SMS to the Crown Prince after the fact rather than actually calling the palace. Perhaps Istanbul security would not have picked this up at all. With the right IT in place, we may never had heard of the crime. Imagine that.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.