RIYADH â€” For outsiders, the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the restrictions they suffer, and ending it may seem like it should be a priority in their struggle for rights.
But many women in the highly conservative kingdom say they have more pressing concerns â€” none more so than getting their rights recognised in male-controlled Islamic law courts.
With Saudi media gradually opening up as part of a slow process of reform in the oil-rich country, the plight of Saudi women seeking divorce, custody of their children or as simple a right as recognition of their offspring is being displayed on the pages of newspapers and even aired on state television.
During a recent edition of a phone-in TV programme, female callers poured out their grievances and sought the advice of guest experts.
One recounted how a judge who ruled on her divorce from her drug addicted husband bowed to his demand that the ruling feature a ban on the woman remarrying or even going out without her ex-husband’s permission.
In another case reported by the press, a 48-year-old Saudi woman has been going from court to court since her husband walked out on her 16 years ago. She is simply seeking a divorce and the father’s recognition of his teenage daughter, who has yet to obtain an identity document enabling her to lead a normal life.
Throughout this period, the man has simply not shown up in court. â€œThe problem is with some judges who breach the rules of Sharia [Islamic law],â€ said Suhaila Zain Al Abideen Hammad, a member of the National Human Rights Association (NHRA) and an expert on Islamic jurisprudence.
â€œThese judges have a condescending, unbelieving attitude towards women, whereas they are always prepared to believe what a man says,â€ she told AFP.
â€œOne common example is when a woman has perfectly good reasons for seeking a divorce but the judge grants it only on the basis that the woman forsake all her rights, be they financial or in terms of custody of her children,â€ she said.
â€œAnother is when a woman is bringing a case against her father or husband, and the judge asks her to come back with her legal guardian before he will look into it.â€
Hammad, who regularly receives complaints of this kind, said that in one instance, a judge gave a father custody of his six-year-old daughter when his ex-wife remarried.
Three years later the father gave the girl in marriage to a 45-year-old man because her stepmother wanted to get rid of her. â€œTo be fair, it is only some judges â€” not all of them â€” who breach the Sharia and the Saudi legal system (based on Islamic law).
But that’s bad enough, because a judge is like a surgeon â€” his actions can be a matter of life or death,â€ she said.
Hammad said a major part of the solution was to codify Islamic personal status laws into clear, unambiguous texts that leave no room for abuse or different rulings on similar cases.
â€œThe Saudi government is actually in the process of codifying these laws as part of a drive to reform the judicial system,â€ she said.
â€œThe reforms will feature the establishment of courts that deal with family and other personal status matters, along with other specialised courts that will handle issues related to trade, labour, etc.,â€ Hammad said.
â€œMoreover, judges who pass unfair rulings are increasingly being held accountable and punished,â€ she added.
Hammad said the NHRA had helped raise awareness of flawed legal practices and was demanding that female legal and sharia experts be appointed in the courts to help prepare the groundwork in cases involving women in a bid to reach just rulings.