May 1, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 349

Public Debate in Saudi Arabia Over Forcing Divorce When Status Of Wife's Family Is Superior to That of Husband's Family

May 1, 2007 | By Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 349

A public and religious debate is currently underway in Saudi Arabia over the question of divorce forced upon couples because of incompatible status – that is, when the status of the wife's family is considered superior to that of her husband's family. The debate arose following a precedent-setting court ruling that ended the marriage of Fatimah and Mansour Al-Taimani for this reason.

The August 2006 court ruling followed a lawsuit for divorcing the Al-Taimanis that was initiated not by the husband or the wife but by Fatimah's brother, on the grounds that Fatimah's tribal lineage was superior to that of her husband.[i] Reading out his ruling, the judge concluded: "My ruling is to annul the marriage contract, as requested by the wife's side, and the wife is subject to 'idah [the time period before a divorcee or widow may remarry] in accordance with her situation and beginning from the date of this ruling..."[ii]

The Al-Taimanis objected to the ruling, and Mansour Al-Taimani appealed to the Riyadh appeals court. The court, however, denied his appeal, reaffirming the ruling separating the couple.[iii]

With her marriage over, Fatimah was imprisoned for objecting to the ruling and for refusing to go back to her family.[iv]

Following the Al-Taimani case, 10 additional lawsuits for divorce for the same reason were submitted to the court.[v]

At present, the Saudi Justice Ministry is conducting a study on the position of Islamic religious law regarding such incompatibility of status in marriage – that is, when the wife's status is regarded as superior to that of her husband – with the aim of clarifying it to the public. [vi] However, Saudi public opinion and the Saudi press are, with very few exceptions, overwhelmingly against the ruling.

This paper will present the positions of clerics, and excerpts from the press and from a women's petition, in the public debate over the issue.

The Religious Dispute on Status Incompatibility in Marriage

Clerics were divided regarding the religious legitimacy of ending a marriage due to incompatibility in status between husband and wife. Sheikh Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khudairi, a Riyadh appeals court judge, maintained that such compatibility was an integral part of the conditions under which a man and a woman could marry, and that these conditions were a law safeguarded by Islam.[vii]

On another occasion, Al-Khudairi said that according to Islamic religious law, even if a man and woman are incompatible in status they are nonetheless permitted to marry and live together in peace if their relatives consent to this. He added, however, that in a case in which a relative of the husband or of the wife is opposed to the marriage, and such opposition might cause rivalry or damage, Saudi law follows the Sunna of the Prophet – that is, in order to prevent conflict, it requires that the marriage be ended, in order to safeguard the lives and the future of their children, and also in order to prevent likely damage to the tribe of either the husband or the wife.[viii]

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mani', member of the Senior Council of Jurisprudents in Saudi Arabia, told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the ulema consider status compatibility to be part of the conditions of marriage – that is, the wife's status must not be superior to that of the husband. He said that status compatibility is assessed according to the traditions and customs by which society lives. Bin Mani' said, "Any marriage that causes any problem in terms of [tribal or] social status incompatibility must be examined, and there is room for the judicial system to deal with the matter."[ix]

However, other sheikhs opposed ending marriages for reasons of incompatibility in status. Dr. Khaled Al-Musheikah, a lecturer on Islamic religious law at the Faculty of Shari'a at Al-Qassim University in Buraidah city, said that separating a husband and wife because of status incompatibility was against Islamic law.[x]

Sheikh Dr. Said Bin Musfir Al-Qahthani expressed his opposition to the entire issue of status compatibility, saying that the only compatibility required by Islamic law when contracting a marriage was religious compatibility. This, he said, was because Islamic law does not permit either a man or a woman to marry a polytheist or an infidel, but does permit a man to marry a kitabiya (that is, a woman of the People of the Book, i.e. a Jewess or a Christian woman), with the hope that she will convert to Islam. He said that if a man and a woman agree to marry despite any gap in their social and tribal status, none may intervene to annul their marriage, because this a strictly personal matter. A relative of the wife can advise her, but cannot force her not to marry if she insists on doing so.[xi]

The Debate on Status Compatibility in the Saudi Press

Views on the matter of status compatibility in marriage were also expressed in the Saudi press. Saudi columnists who opposed the breakup of the Al-Taimanis' marriage argued that the court ruling was racist and incompatible with modernity, and stressed that Islam is a religion of equality. Other columnists, however, argued that tribal status was rooted in ancient custom and could not be ignored, regardless of changes that had taken place in Saudi society.

The Ruling Shows Islam as a Racist Religion

In an opinion piece in the Saudi daily 'Okaz, columnist and former Saudi Shura Council member Dr. Ghazi Jamjoum wrote: "Is it conceivable that such a thing should happen in our country? In this day and age, is it conceivable to hand down a ruling that classifies people by level of superiority and inferiority, and forces a couple... who still want to live together.... to be separated on this basis?!

"Islam is a religion of equality: 'There is no difference between an Arab and an 'ajami [a Persian, i.e. a non-Arab] except fear of God'... This great religion implements equality among human beings, and sets a precedent for modern law and international human rights treaties... and all [laws and treaties] affirm the principle of full equality among people despite differences in their origin, [tribal] lineage, skin color or religion.

"Our country is the cradle and stronghold of Islam; therefore, [one would expect it to be] the last country to issue a ruling that contradicts the principle of equality among human beings...

"Is it possible to issue a [court] decision annulling a legal marriage in the absence of a request for divorce from the husband or wife – and further, in the face of their wish [to remain married]? It is known that judges try to preserve family unity and the continuation of married life... [The judges] hate divorce... So how can it be that a judge decides to destroy a stable marriage, particularly when there are two children involved, whose lives will be directly impacted by this decision?"[xii]

Taking a similar position, columnist Khaled Abdullah Al-Khamis wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "No one [should be permitted] to distort the image of Islam. This is because Islam does not belong only to the Quraysh tribe or to any other tribe, and is not the sole property of the Saudis, nor the sole property of the Arabs. Further, [Islam] is the religion of global justice...

"Today, [we are witnessing grave cultural struggles]. Every country wants to present its culture positively... In light of this, how can we present Islam through racist discrimination? If we were told that a European court had ended the marriage of a black man and a white woman because of [their skin] color, wouldn't we consider this racist, and wouldn't we use it to damage the reputation of that country?

"As a matter of fact, we are doing something [even] worse when we separate a white Muslim man and a white Muslim woman, under the pretext of [upholding] shari'a... "[xiii]

The Ruling is a Human Rights Violation

Columnist and lecturer at King Saud University Jibrin Al-Jibrin wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "Even if these customs [i.e. the requirement that the wife's status not be superior to that of her husband] reflect a social reality, they must be opposed, because they are not based on Islamic law... They are counter to common sense, violate the most fundamental human rights, and strike our society hard... This matter clarifies that there is an area of confusion where religion is mixed up with social customs and outdated folklore.

"We are suffering greatly because [people] do not understand that it is confusion that has led to the distortion of the image of Islam... [This confusion] is not deliberate, it is an unconscious confusion based on good intentions. History will judge us negatively for witnessing and observing some of these customs that distort our tolerant religion...

"[Likewise,] we are forced to accept the interpretation of our judges and of our supreme sheikhs, even though we are not convinced [of the truth of what they say] and, in some cases, do not agree with them. This is because these social customs have become part of our unconscious, which controls our behavior."[xiv]

We Will Not Relinquish Our Ancient Customs

In contrast, columnist and author Turki Al-'Asiri supported the court ruling. In the Saudi daily 'Okaz, he wrote: "A logical reason can be found for such a decision... Although we accept the dynamic of our time, and its developments and progress, we remain imprisoned by tribal concepts, and cannot rid ourselves of them. The mistake in the breaking up of this marriage lies not in the ruling [itself] but in the initial consent to the marriage...

"It should be emphasized that the matter of status compatibility is nothing new or unusual, but is a living reality, and a customary law among most of the tribes in the kingdom. The columnists [who criticized the ruling] live in a different world, and not in a society in which the [tribal] leaders are strong and influential.

"Anyone following this [tribal reality] sees and hears that this tribal concept [i.e. requiring that the wife's status not be superior to the husband's] is common. Moreover, there are sectors of society [in which families] marry their daughters only [to men] of the same sector –preferably to a cousin, or to a member of the same tribe or [to someone] from the same branch of the tribe..."[xv]

Saudi Women Petition King Abdullah to Cancel the Court Ruling

On February 10, 2007, 116 Saudi women sent a petition to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz stating: "We hope that we can feel secure about [our own] family lives, now that they are threatened by the danger of rulings separating couples and taking away their children for reasons of status incompatibility...

"This [court] ruling has struck fear and anxiety in the hearts of us Saudi women, because it gives a relative [of the wife – her father, brother, or son] or anyone [else] in her family absolute authority to demand that her marriage be legally annulled... Thus, the life of every married Saudi woman is under threat from any relative – direct or otherwise – who can destroy her home and force her to separate from her husband and children due to status incompatibility...

"Likewise, we are informed that a number of women have received threats of lawsuits to separate them from their husbands for the same reason... Such rulings, which are based on certain religious interpretations that do not consider the damage and danger that they cause, will harm the social fabric, family relations, peace, and national unity.

"Agreeing [to such rulings] will undermine security and stability, and will threaten civil rights and equality among all elements of the social fabric...

"We submit this petition in the name of many Saudi women, and hope that the case of Fatimah Al-Taimani will be returned to the court, that her divorce ruling will be annulled, and that she will return to her home, her husband, and her children.

"We also hope that every divorce suit submitted by anyone except the wife or husband will be rejected... because only the wife or husband is entitled to preserve the legal marital relationship, so that the Saudi woman will be calm and will feel secure in her family life..."[xvi]

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[i] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 19, 2006.

[ii] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 19, 2006.

[iii] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2006; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) January 29, 2007.

[iv] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 31, 2007.

[v] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 28, 2007; 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 15, 2007.

[vi] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 11, 2007.

[vii] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), December 8, 2006.

[viii] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 8, 2007.

[ix] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 8, 2007.

[x] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), December 8, 2006.

[xi]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 8, 2007.

[xii] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 8, 2006.

[xiii] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 9, 2006.

[xiv] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 10, 2007.

[xv] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 2, 2006.

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