The rate of Saudi divorces is staggeringly high. Throughout modern history, divorce was socially unaccepted. Today with freedom and women’s rights, there is no longer a stigma surrounding divorce. What has changed?
According to the Saudi Ministry of Justice, the number of marriage contracts in Saudi Arabia reached 150,117 in 2020, increased by 8.9% compared to 2019. On the other hand, the number of divorces reached 57,595 in 2020, an increase by 12.7% since 2019. This means that divorce in the Kingdom happens at the rate of 127 cases per day, or about five cases per hour. A high figure for a nation of 33 million.
Who Initiates Divorce, Women or Men?
It is difficult to accurately determine Saudi divorce rates, as official statistics are not regularly published. However, it is generally believed that the majority of divorces are initiated by men. This is due to the fact that under Saudi Arabia’s previous male guardianship system, men had more legal authority than women and could divorce their wives more easily. Yet with the new laws that are granting Saudi women more rights, divorce in Saudi Arabia is now equally easy for women.
Social and cultural factors may contribute to the high divorce rate in Saudi Arabia, which Saudi women take more into consideration. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said “The most hated of permissible things to Allah is divorce.” Ultimately, the situation varies depending on the circumstances of each marriage.
It is also difficult to compare divorce rates in Saudi Arabia with those other Gulf countries, due to lack of regularly published statistics in these countries. However, social structures in the Gulf countries resemble each other, and therefore cultural and social factors will play similar roles in divorces throughout the region.
One option that is a right for women in Islam but not implemented is the khula procedure. Khula is a woman’s right to divorce from her husband by returning the dowry or something else she has received from her husband, or without returning anything as agreed by the spouses or a court ruling, depending on the circumstances.
Before Divorce Comes Marriage
For a long time, it was believed that a Saudi woman’s purpose was to get married and start a family. Through this projection onto girls from a young age, many of us began to fantasize and dream about our future, with our main priority being finding the perfect husband. At the time, marriage was the most significant event, especially if it is your own. Weddings as an act in themselves were a highlight in every girl’s life. The planning and preparation process was (and still is) thrilling.
Having a wedding wasn’t just about the excitement of planning such an extravagant event for oneself, but also about the prospect of freedom. Living at home with parents, women had to follow strict rules controlling their social life, often leading to frustration. Becoming a married woman meant one could begin a more relaxed life, with regulations still in place but less restricting. Therefore, for many women, marriage was the gateway to freedom.
Life in Saudi Arabia before 2017 provided very limited distractions, with only a few activities to fill our time: going to a restaurant, meeting friends at home, shopping, or traveling for those who could afford it. The majority of these activities were based on spending money, so, in many instances, it was only possible to have fun if the family was included. Therefore, it was very welcomed when opportunities increased and events were held throughout the country, as there were new things to be entertain us.
The lifestyle between your parents’ household and the one shared with your husband had felt like separate worlds, mainly because one had to follows your parents’ rules. As married women, we have social obligations that often require us to stay out late, with or without the husband. This was not usual under your parents’ roof, when a curfew was the norm.
These patterns are based on tradition and societal beliefs, mainly due to a married woman’s responsibilities. However, it is important to note that a married woman’s image is also her family’s image. It grants her a social status but also keeps a closer tab on her behaviour, which is where the aspect of responsibility comes in.
In all this, the meaning of marriage – to share life with a suitable partner – was not of great importance. Girls prided themselves in numbers of men who came to propose. Today it can be compared to the number of Instagram followers. It was important because it meant one had social weight – a conformation of being desired and popular in society. I remember that, at university, there were many married girls among us.
They were able to go out longer hours than those of us who were not married. They had control and could make decisions without having to have permission from their parents. And a man in their life. We were very envious and thought that was cool. A guy to talk to legally. It might sound banal, but in our society, at that time, it was a big deal. Male and female worlds were lived completely apart and separated. That was normal. As private and work life was lives separated. Today, the opening that happened in public life influenced private life as well.
Yes to Marriage, Yes to Work?
Saudi women today still dream about marriage. Like most women, there is still that desire to find the right partner and build a life together. However, today this is no longer the only dream Saudi women have, and for many of us being a wife and mother is no longer the main aspiration. With the Saudi economy opening up opportunities and women being granted rights, young girls and women know they have a chance of having an independent life and fulfilling their dreams, whether or not they are married.
While getting married and having children may have been the prime goal in girls’ lives, today choosing the right career and achievement at work have also become important. In the past, a career was no real option for most women because job opportunities were so restricted. Today, with the government making female employment a priority and women rising to top positions in business and government, for many girls this is a viable alternative to being a homemaker.
It is difficult to make generalizations about Saudi women’s preferences, and there is no one-size-fits-all standard. Many Saudi women, and probably most, still prefer to get married and start a family. It is pride for Arabs to have a family, which is mentioned in the Quran as one of the treasures in life “Wealth and children are an adornment of the life of this world; and the ever abiding, the good works, are better with your Lord in reward and better in expectation.” However, it is no longer the only goal.
What has changed?
Many parents attitude towards marriage has changed, with the daughter’s happiness and respect for her choice taking precedence over image in society. The financial and social consequences of divorce are also dealt with in a more relaxed manner. Socially, people tend to care less about marital status, or are forced by the attitude of the younger generation. Financially, many women can support themselves and their children without having to lean on a husband or family for support.
Saudi women have developed to be much more independent, and therefore do not only have the independence of financial support, but also the freedom to take care of themselves. Today, a woman does not even need a driver any more, and she can freely travel and pursue a career without need permission from male relatives.
I know a friend who, after her divorce, lived with her parents in Prince Fawaz District, 35 km from Jeddah city centre. Logistically it became difficult for her. After two years, she moved with her children into a separate apartment in the city. In the past, it was not considered acceptable for divorced women to live on their own. Today this has changed, since women can take care of themselves.
By the way, it was never mandatory for a man to be married. Why? Because they don’t want the responsibility. Anything, compromising, sharing, looking after considering and nor being free.
Today, life in Saudi offers men equal freedom not to be married like women. They can stay single, chat and mingle with females without social criticism as life has opened up. The Eibs (in Arabic any social no-go) are not as many as before, allowing easier interactions. Also, the financial burden was a turn-off for many men.
The concept of marriage stands for forming a family, intimacy, and giving one stability. Today he may have a lot of these without being married. So why choose marriage? Many of the above are traditions and customs that governed Saudi society more than religion and their personal choice. An unnecessary burden that had no significant reason nor meaning.
Married and Happy
We can agree that, in the past, the basis for a successful marriage would be chance. So, shall we make a recipe for a happy, married life in Saudi Arabia? Let’s try to hypothesize.
The story begins with the right perspective on and about marriage. Everyone dreams of living a fairy tale with superman and superwomen. Marriage is a happy relationship between two people who will agree and disagree, knowing their responsibilities towards each other in their relationship. For that, the right person needs to be chosen, of course with attraction and love. The concept of marriage is not to add to me but to fulfil one another. Choices or not, choices now are an imbalance between reactions to past views, experiences, missed chances, lost choices, and protection.
Let’s get married in the right way. In Islam, it is to be sharing life with someone. Let’s find the right person to live with and can disagree with. The choice is what matters. It begins in me. Knowing what I want and aim at will most probably make a person make a healthier choice. This is one important opportunity we should use freedom, in combination with all the values we as Saudis have in religion and good customs and traditions.
Today marriage is a choice, and not a social obligation. A Saudi woman will survive being branded. Most importantly she can take care of herself.