No matter how many reports you read about the rise in numbers of divorce cases in Saudi Arabia, it still remains a dirty word that Saudis are taught not to even contemplate. For my generation and those younger, there is a growing number who rebel. But for older couples it is still very true. No matter how much they hate each other, divorce is not an option. “Real” men and women never divorce. We are taught in schools that it is the most abhorred by God of all things Islamically permitted. Couples have separate bedrooms on different floors and lead chiefly separate lives and yet are still married. A man might take on a second wife and not see his first except twice a month to pay the bills and buy groceries. He does it because he thinks its manly and the woman stays on and is patient because that’s what a good woman does.
This like all other things is changing. After reading a report on this in Arab News, I thought I would write a bit about it. In Saudi Arabia there are two ways to obtain a divorce depending on who initiates it, the first is easy and can be done by the husband and the second is extremely hard and is reserved for the wife. The first can be done by the husband simply by deciding in his heart to divorce his wife and in effect this becomes valid immediately. Then in his own time he can go to the courts and obtain a document of his decision and send a copy to the ex-wife. Alimony and child custody is not a big deal either and definitely not mandated. Several women I personally know have never gotten any financial support from their ex-husbands. And in the case they are allowed child custody, its only because the father is not interested in caring for the kids. So in essence he is allowing the mother to have them. This and most other issues related to family law is only loosely based on Islam and what really goes on is the absolute vilification of the wife in court while the husband is always taken at his word. I know you might be thinking that I’m exaggerating but seriously I’m not.
When it comes to the wife initiating a divorce it is a whole different issue. It’s not even called divorce, it’s called khula which literally means taking off as in taking off clothes or jewelry. What the woman has to do is prove that the husband did something. Abuse whether physical or verbal does not get a woman far in court even with a medical report because the Saudi judges tend to believe that she probably did something to provoke it. The only proof that will absolve the woman and get her treated favorably is one of three; proof that the husband is a drug addict, has AIDS or being a daughter of a VIP. Otherwise the process is stressful, expensive and might lead to her never seeing her children again. In one case the judge and his assistants demanded from the wife that she detail her husband’s performance in bed. Another woman had to pay her dowry back in full after more than a decade of marriage and four children. Some of those years she financially supported her then husband and yet she still had to give back the money he spent on her as a young bride and give up child custody completely. To rub salt into injury, she was hushed in court while listening to the guy tell everyone there including her father and brothers how horny she was and that she wouldn’t be doing this unless she had someone else in mind to marry.
However after everything settles down, within society it is much better for a woman to obtain a khula rather than be divorced. Divorced women are usually viewed as having done something wrong but a woman who obtains a khula is a victim. It’s as if society understands that the difficulty of the process shows in some way that women do not go through with it except as a last resort after being tremendously wronged.
Marriages and divorces in Saudi Arabia seem to crop up in the news on a regular basis here, mainly because of the controversies and bizarre natures surrounding many of them - and they are definitely not the norm in the West. In recent weeks three such unions have made headlines here.
But first, a little background on how marriages happen here. In Saudi Arabia, the marriage process differs from that in the West. In the West it is typical for a man and a woman to date for a while, get to know one another, become engaged for a period of time, and then get married. But in Saudi Arabia the process is completely different. Most often the man and woman do not really know each other when they marry. They likely had a nerve-wracking meeting once or twice in the woman’s home with other family members around and if they both liked what they saw, they agreed to marry, based on just those one or two awkward meetings. A marriage contract would then be drawn up and signed - and they are considered officially married. However, they will not actually live together as husband and wife for quite some time until the actual wedding, when the marriage is finally consummated. Most weddings here, by the way, are comprised of two entirely separate functions, one for men guests only and the other for women guests only because men and women are not allowed to mix socially in this country.
The first weird story about a divorce here in Saudi Arabia involved a young man from Qatif when he decided to divorce his young bride after only seven days of marriage. The reason? Because she had her appendix removed. No lie.
The second unusual case is about a young couple, Fatima and Mansoor, who had married happily and had a child together and one on the way. The wife’s half brothers, who had never had much to do with her all of her life, suddenly went to court to have her marriage annulled. On what grounds? Because in this tribal society here in Saudi Arabia, her "concerned" half brothers argued that she had married beneath her class. She was given the option of divorcing her husband or going to prison. Bravely Fatima opted for prison, where her second child was born, and they languished there for several years. Just recently the Supreme Judiciary Council finally ruled that Fatima and Mansoor could remain married. But don’t assume this is an automatic happy ending to this story. Her brothers may decide not to concede just because a judge ruled against them. The primitive and ignorant tribal mentality actually could place Fatima’s life in danger now so her brothers don’t lose face.
The third news article regarding odd marriages and divorces pertained to an 80 year old who had to be convinced by the court that allowing his 12 year old bride a divorce would be the proper thing to do. She's the same age as his GREAT-grandchildren! This case is similar to several that have been in the news here in the past few years. In many instances, the father will literally sell his daughter to pay a debt or to better his own family’s financial situation. But in an even more bizarre twist, just today this same 12 year old girl announced that she would accept her marriage to the 80 year old to show her obediance to her father! You've got to read this!
It comes as no surprise that three of the major causes of divorce in KSA are due to age differences, polygamy, and interference by family. Since men here are allowed up to four wives according to Islam, multiple wives spells trouble for most marriages as many women find the notion quite distasteful. In years past, the concept of love never really entered into the picture in this part of the world. Marriages were always considered a business deal. But times are a-changin’ here in that regard to marriage and the reasons for it. Women seem to be wanting more out of marriage than to just be baby-making machines and sexual objects for their husbands.
And to add just one last interesting tidbit regarding marriages in Saudi Arabia: as you know, most Saudi women veil their faces either completely or with just the eyes visible. So when a man wants to meet a woman about the possibility of marriage, he is allowed to see her one time with her face and hair uncovered. If he likes what he sees, and she approves, a marriage contract will be drawn up. But this can result in the old “Bait and Switch,” whereby if a family has a couple of daughters - one beautiful and the other not so beautiful - the potential mate is introduced to the beautiful daughter. Since he has not much else to go on but looks, he likes what he sees and agrees to marry her. But when the wedding night rolls around months later, the bride that is pawned off on him is actually her homely sister. He is miffed, but then again he only saw her once so he’s not really sure. This way the more beautiful daughter can command an even heftier dowry when she weds than the unattractive one ever could.
And that's how it's sometimes done in Saudi Arabia...