Saudi women use wedding contracts to assert right to drive

'If you don't let me drive...I d

Saudi women use wedding contracts to assert right to drive

'If you don't let me drive...I don't want you': Saudi Arabian women demand husbands-to-be put their right to drive in marital contract

  • Saudi Arabia lifted its decades-long ban on women drivers in 2018
  • To drive women no longer require the explicit approval of their male 'guardians' 
  • It remains unclear whether women have any legal recourse if their guardian prevents them from taking the wheel

Saudi women are using their wedding contracts to ensure their husbands-to-be respect their legal right to drive.      

Wedding contracts have long been a safety net for brides in the deeply patriarchal society, used to guarantee demands that are often otherwise subject to the whims of the husband or his family.

Such legally binding contracts typically codify anything from the woman's right to have her own house, hire a maid, or to study or work.

But after the kingdom last year lifted a decades-long ban on female motorists, a popular new condition being seen in the contracts is the right to own and drive a car.

There are no official statistics on the number of such contracts and Saudi Arabia's justice and media ministries did not respond to requests for comment. 

But anecdotes suggest this was a growing trend. 

After Saudi Arabia, last year, lifted a decades-long ban on female motorists, a popular new condition being seen in wedding contracts is the right to own and drive a car

After Saudi Arabia, last year, lifted a decades-long ban on female motorists, a popular new condition being seen in wedding contracts is the right to own and drive a car

Saudi salesman Majd had just begun his wedding preparations when his fiancee sought to enshrine in their marriage contract a condition giving her the right to drive - as should already be guaranteed by law. 

The 29-year-old who is due to marry this month in his native Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia, signed off on two demands from his 21-year-old fiancee in his marriage contract.

This included the right to drive and to work after marriage.

'She said she [would] like to be independent,' explained Majd, who requested his last name be withheld as the discussion was a private family matter.

'I replied: 'sure, why not?''

A Saudi cleric shows samples of wedding contracts during an interview with AFP in the capital Riyadh

A Saudi cleric shows samples of wedding contracts during an interview with AFP in the capital Riyadh

Overturning the world's only ban on women drivers is the most palpable social change in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which is pursuing a wide-ranging liberalisation drive.

To drive, women do not require the explicit approval of their male 'guardians' - husbands, fathers and other male relatives - though their permission is still needed by women to study, get married and even leave prison.

But it remains unclear whether women have any legal recourse should their guardians prevent them from taking the wheel.

And many in the kingdom appear to be trapped in this troubling scenario.

'Some women prefer to include the driving condition in their contract to avoid any marital conflicts' over the issue, said Abdulmohsen al-Ajemi, a Riyadh wedding cleric who received his first such enquiry from the family of an engaged woman last week.

'It's a way to guarantee the husband will keep his promise.'

Senior Saudi cleric Adel al-Kalbani said the new conditions demanded by women in wedding contracts are a sign of the kingdom's social transformation

Senior Saudi cleric Adel al-Kalbani said the new conditions demanded by women in wedding contracts are a sign of the kingdom's social transformation

A breach of wedding conditions can be used by women as grounds for divorce, clerics say.

Munirah al-Sinani, a 72-year-old housewife in Dhahran, a city in the kingdom's east, said she had come across two such cases recently among her acquaintances.

'If you don't let me drive, if you say 'no', then khallas [finished] - I don't want you,' Sinani quoted one of the women as telling her potential spouse.

The trend underscores how women appear to be using the contracts to side-step patriarchy - and the conditions appear to be getting bolder.

A man in eastern Al-Ahsa city said that during a marriage within his extended family, the bride demanded that her husband-to-be give up smoking.

Another woman asked that her husband have no access to her salary and another stipulated that she should not fall pregnant in the first year of marriage, according to cleric Ajemi.

A Saudi woman took social media by storm recently when she posted her wedding contract online.

The document prohibited her husband from taking a second wife, even though polygamy is legal in Islam.

Angry online trolls rebuked her husband as 'unmanly' for accepting the condition.

Men also sometimes use wedding contracts to stipulate that the 'wife will never work' or that she must agree to live with his mother, senior cleric Adel al-Kalbani said.

Saudis attend a wedding in the Red Sea resort of Jeddah in September 2018

Saudis attend a wedding in the Red Sea resort of Jeddah in September 2018

The new conditions were being seen as a sign of the kingdom's social transformation that appeared to be granting women more rights.

But there was also concern that they may cause strains in marriages in a traditional society where such conditions may be deemed insulting or signify a lack of trust in the husband, typically the head of a household.

Saudi media has already reported a spike in divorce cases in recent years.

'In the past, society did not listen to women. Husbands would turn around and firmly say 'No',' cleric Ajemi said.

'But now they are listening to the aspirations of women, adapting to their demands.'

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