Women in Saudi Arabia—who have long been subjected to a litany of misogynistic restrictions on their behavior, including totalitarian male guardianship laws—will soon receive text messages to inform them of changes to their marital status as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “reforms” of the country’s monarchic government, CNN reported on Sunday.
The change comes after a Saudi court ruled secret divorces illegal and is intended to fight a slew of cases in which Saudi women have been divorced by their husbands without notice, according to CNN, often in an attempt to screw them out of alimony payments or seize control of their bank accounts. The messages will “include the divorce certificate number and the name of the relevant court where the women can pick up the documentation,” CNN added, and a new website has been formed where women can inquire about their marital status and read through any probate certificates.
In a statement to the network, the Saudi Ministry of Justice tried to portray the decision as “a step aimed at protecting the rights of female clients, and enhancing digital transformation with more services.” That ministry also publicized the change with a pleasant-looking cartoon of a woman receiving a text message, which is really one hell of a way to depict someone being informed their spouse is attempting to divorce them in secret.
“The new measure ensures women get their rights when they’re divorced,” Saudi lawyer Nisreen al-Ghamdi told Bloomberg via phone. “It also ensures that any powers of attorney issued before the divorce are not misused.”
Like other recent changes to laws in the country like the end of a ban on female drivers, this is slightly better than the status quo but could reasonably be interpreted in part as spray-painting the veneer of progress over a framework of laws designed at their core to systemically discriminate against women. As the Telegraph noted, this move does not change a legal system in which men can divorce their wives by making a verbal statement and verifying the proceeding in court, while women can only divorce with the consent of their male guardian and “both a reason and evidence of abuse.”
“At least women will know whether they are divorced or not,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh of global human rights organization Equality Now told Reuters. “It is a tiny step, but it is a step in the right direction.”
“The male guardianship system is a core issue and it must be dismantled,” she added. “It controls women in each and every step of their lives. This system strangles Saudi women.”
Bin Salman, the heir to the throne and de facto head of the day-to-day operations of the Saudi government including its military, intelligence, and police apparatuses, has tried to sell himself as a reformer and Silicon Valley-style disruptor eager to usher the country into a kind of techno-utopia. However, he’s also overseen waves of brutal crackdowns on dissent, with targets including everyone from fellow royals and feminist activists to journalist in self-imposed exile Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally murdered last year by Saudi agents at the nation’s consulate in Turkey. Beyond that, he’s overseen a U.S.-supported bombing campaign in Yemen rife with allegations of war crimes.
As the Guardian’s editorial board noted earlier this month, the crown prince’s government has sought to eviscerate dissent to a degree that “The new Saudi Arabia is not the same as the old Saudi Arabia. It is worse.”