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Mariage et famille dans le Golfe aujourd’hui

Encountering the State: Women and divorce in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Zina Sawaf


Après le 11 Septembre, l’État saoudien se serait féminisé en promouvant une réforme globale à l’égard des femmes. Depuis le règne du roi ʿAbdallah et grâce à la récente et ambitieuse feuille de route du prince Muḥammad bin Salmān en matière de réformes socio-économiques, la monarchie s’est faite le champion de la cause des femmes. Cet article cherche à aller au-delà d’une approche centrée sur l’État, mettant l’accent sur le rôle de l’État, des acteurs et des institutions saoudiens. Il explore plutôt, d’un point de vue ethnographique, comment la féminisation de l’État se manifeste dans les rencontres et les interactions quotidiennes entre les femmes divorcées et les processus, les bureaux et les fonctionnaires de l’État à Riyad, en Arabie saoudite. En engageant simplement l’État et en réinterprétant continuellement ce qu’il pourrait leur offrir en termes de droits et de ressources, les divorcées sont capables de tracer de nouvelles frontières autour de leur vie intime. Par conséquent, il importe moins que les acteurs et les institutions étatiques rallient les positions des femmes dans divers domaines, mais plutôt que cette soi-disant féminisation permette aux femmes d’agir, d’interpréter et d’imaginer différemment la vie familiale et sexuelle et, surtout, les façons d’être avec et pour autrui.

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I arrive at Ṣamar’s parent’s home around 9am. It was farther than I expected. As I near their home, Ḥiṣa calls me to tell me to encourage Ṣamar and boost her morale. She also tells me to advise Ṣamar to take a few breaths before answering any question posed by the judge, as this would allow her to remain calm and clear…

With her brother Othman at the wheel, we drive towards the old downtown and the Personal Status Court of Riyadh, barely making it on time. I don the niqab because I know that the judges are in fact men of religion, shuyūkh, and I know that the courts are conservative.

  • 1 Quoted from my field notes, written on June 5, 2014. Names have been changed in order to protect t (...)

Ṣamar is clearly nervous as she turns to me from the passenger seat and hands me a heavy stack of papers – pages upon pages of her bank statements over the past three years. She has highlighted in yellow the large amounts she has spent at various pharmacies, numerous branches of the Panda Supermarket, and Mamas & Papas – among other family-related expenditures. According to Sharia [Islamic law], the responsibility for earning and spending on the family is that of the male head of household. I take out my smart phone to add up these amounts, as she requests, so she may have an idea of the total amount she has spent on her husband and two daughters out of her limited income working as a dental hygienist. She hopes this evidence can be submitted to win one of the various cases she has raised against her husband – the case of al-nafaqa al-sābiqa (the past alimony).1

  • 2 Interview with Ṣamar, conducted on April 3, 2014.
  • 3 Quoted from my field notes, written on June 5, 2014.

1After nine years of marriage to ʿAbdul Raḥmān, Ṣamar could no longer endure life with her husband. This time, she had left her conjugal home along with her two young daughters, fearing for her life as well as theirs. He had tried to strangle her “not with one hand, but with two hands”.2 After the first court session to which we were heading in the vignette above, and to which ʿAbdul Raḥmān did not show up, Ḥiṣa cautioned Ṣamar not to rejoice just yet, since “the battle is only getting started”.3 Although she is ʿAbdul Raḥmān’s sister, Ḥiṣa, a photographer and licensed psychotherapist, was the first person Ṣamar called after she was nearly choked to death. Ṣamar contacted Ḥiṣa before she spoke with any member of her own family, and continued to turn to Ḥiṣa for direction and support. Ṣamar is fully aware of Ḥiṣa’s position vis-à-vis other women in the family and in society more broadly. In effect, Ḥiṣa is an outspoken activist for women’s rights in the kingdom and takes personal risks to show solidarity with women, such as her participation in the three main public protests since 1990 against the ban on women driving.

  • 4 Human Rights Watch, 2013.
  • 5 Al-Bishr, 2014.

2Around the very same time that Ṣamar was filing a criminal case against her husband for strangling her, using police and medical reports that document both the abuse committed and the injuries sustained, the Saudi Council of Ministers had recently criminalized domestic violence. In August 2013, an unprecedented Regulation on Protection from Abuse was passed to penalize men for abusing their wives, fixing the penalty for domestic abuse at between one month and one year in prison and/or a fine of between 5,000 and 50,000 Saudi riyal (between USD 1333 and USD 13,330).4 The law set a precedent in considering domestic abuse as criminal behavior, and generated nation-wide discussion during subsequent months as men took to twitter poking fun at the penalty with “arb al-zawja bi 50 alf riyāl” (hit your wife for 50 thousand riyal). One joke ran that it costs just as much to make the mahr (dowry) payment to a new wife, and thus it is wiser to hold back from hitting your wife and take a second one instead, for the same price.5

3Ṣamar is not new to divorce. She was previously married to her cousin and gave up custody of her two elder sons in the process of seeking termination of her marriage in Kuwait where they lived. Yet how did it come to be that this time, her sister-in-law was actively coaching and seeking to empower her, an anthropologist was tailing her, and the state – through its diverse courts – was deciding on her conjugal, financial and social future?

  • 6 Sonbol, 2012, p. 316.
  • 7 Hasso, 2011.
  • 8 Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 135.

4Throughout the region, marital relations have come to be guided and negotiated through “state codes enforced by state power and authority”.6 Intimate realms including sexual and family life are becoming increasingly dependent on the state as the foremost agency extending protection and support. This is partially the result of activism on the part of women, and women’s rights activists who often turn to and invite male-dominated states not only to change the rules of intimate life but also to adjust male behavior and reform subjectivities with regards to marriage, divorce, reproduction, and sexuality.7 In Saudi Arabia specifically, and since the post-September 11 era of gender reform, the masculine state has accelerated the “feminization of itself”.8 Most recently, with the start of King Salmān’s reign in 2015 and the rise to power of his son and crown prince Muḥammad bin Salmān, the authoritarian monarchy continues to champion women’s causes. In a profoundly symbolic move that has been attributed to the crown prince’s ambitious roadmap of socio-economic reforms, it has lifted the decades-long ban on women driving. Yet at the same time as women are freely taking to the wheel, other women activists who previously campaigned against the driving ban as well as the male guardianship system have been detained indefinitely.

  • 9 Hasso, 2011, p. 108.
  • 10 Ibid., 2013, p. 26.
  • 11 Ibid., 2013.
  • 12 Al-Mohammad and Peluso, 2012.

5Indeed, reliance on state-delivered rights and protections in various realms is said to constitute a “devil’s bargain,” in that it serves to reconstitute uneven power relations and refashion state authority over intimate life ultimately bolstering the state.9 Yet this article seeks to move beyond a “state-centric approach”10 with its focus on the role of the Saudi state, actors and institutions, which analyses of the “most masculine state”11 tend to privilege. Rather, it ethnographically explores how the state’s feminization of itself unfolds in the “rough ground”12 of everyday embodied encounters and interactions between women divorcées and the processes, offices and officials of the state as well as its documentary practices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The article achieves this through an ethnographic depiction of a state-sponsored charitable association that works with divorcées and through an ethnographic narrative of Ṣamar’s engagement with the state, its courts, laws and processes.

  • 13 Das, 2007.
  • 14 Hasso, 2011, p. 4.
  • 15 Al Ghāmdi, 2015.

6The figure of the divorcée in particular serves as a discursive and ethnographic segue into unpacking the feminizing state. Taking a cue from Das, who explores how the figure of the abducted woman was transfigured to institute a social contract that created the Indian nation as a masculine nation at the time of Partition,13 the figure of the divorcée opens up the feminizing Saudi state to scrutiny, since her relationship with the latter is increasingly more direct. On the one hand, a woman cannot execute or initiate divorce without recourse to the court and, by extension, state offices. Often accompanied by or through the intermediary of her father, brother or male kin, a woman must petition state-sanctioned courts and employees to obtain a termination of her marriage. By contrast, a man is normally only required to report the divorce and obtain documentary proof of the divorce in the form of a decree (ak al-alāq). In effect, male repudiation of the wife is a “unilateral prerogative”14 for Muslim husbands and tends to take place outside the court. On the other hand, a divorcée or widow has recently become privy to unprecedented juridical and legal rights through family identity cards issued especially for her. This card identifies a divorcée or widow as the head of the family and allows her rights to access records, register children in school and authorize medical procedures.15

  • 16 After an ethnographic stint at the officially registered charitable association I discuss below, I (...)
  • 17 Mitchell, 2006.
  • 18 Hughes, 2015, p. 290.

7This article is based on ethnographic fieldwork in Riyadh over one year (2013–2014) in addition to three follow-up visits, which unfolded in such sites of bureaucratic contestation and renegotiation as the court, the governor’s offices and the police station, as well as the more intimate space of the house.16 The bureaucratic arena of contestation is loosely defined as those offices of the state which produce a “state effect”17 all the while individuating and enabling members of society to make claims and file petitions using the state’s categories and standardized vocabulary, in turn generating “subversive effects”.18 This article argues that state discourse and practices towards divorcées appear to individuate and empower the latter. State interventions depend on a restricted understanding of the family and draw on bureaucratic categories, processes and techniques. Since women are entangled in the established male guardianship system, however, they fight an uphill battle and are already made vulnerable by the state, which is not to be read as being made a victim, and they enter into drawn-out processes of negotiation with themselves, their families and the judiciary that often do not neatly match their expectations. Yet by merely engaging the state, continually interpreting and re-interpreting, imagining and re-imagining what it might offer them in terms of rights and resources, divorcées are able to draw new boundaries around their intimate lives. In this way, it matters not so much that state actors and institutions espouse women’s positions in various realms, but rather that this so-called feminization enables women to act upon, interpret and imagine differently family and sexual life, and crucially, ways of being with and for others.

8The following section lays out the context in which Ṣamar’s encounter and interaction with the state unfolds. It is a specific historical moment located within the post-September 11 period during which the state, with the ruling family and the king at its helm, is reaching out to women in order to keep increasing international censure and scrutiny at bay. The Charitable Mawaddah Association for the Reduction of Divorce and its Effects is one such state-sponsored initiative that emerged during this period in order to attend to the health of the “Saudi family” through the individuated female figure of the divorcée. By seeking to reform the divorcée through statist categories and practices, it is effectively reconstituting the category of the divorcée on the heels of recognizable and pre-existing categories of modernization, namely the Bedouin and the poor. Next, the article returns to Ṣamar, discussing the specific conditions that enable her to engage the state as she negotiates and tests a new position for herself not only vis-à-vis her husband but also vis-à-vis her own family. Facing bureaucratic and judicial deadlock, she eventually drops the charges of domestic abuse and the cases for divorce and alimony. At the same time, and although she is left hanging – neither married nor divorced – she has negotiated and drawn new boundaries around her intimate life.

The Feminizing State in Post-9/11 Saudi Arabia

  • 19 Al-Rasheed, 2013.
  • 20 In this context, “unveiled women” refers to women whose faces – not hair – are uncovered.
  • 21 Al-Rasheed, 2017.

9The reverberations of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City were felt throughout the world and especially in Saudi Arabia. A majority of the hijackers were Saudi nationals including Usāma Bin Lādin, the founder of Al-Qaeda that claimed responsibility for the attacks. As the kingdom came under increasing international scrutiny, and grappled with global questions of security and terrorism and national stress resulting from rising youth unemployment, it sought to “soften” its face through women.19 More visibility and expanded education and employment opportunities for women enabled the state to counter mounting international criticism of Saudi society and Islam. State narratives especially celebrated cosmopolitan unveiled women,20 and tolerated women calling for an Islamic feminism. So long as women’s mobilization called for gradual and gender-specific reform under the protection of the state, it was accepted.21 While this did not give rise to permanent and substantial achievements for women, especially with regards to legal restrictions, it nonetheless constituted a gambit for women to play a more significant and visible role in economic and political realms.

  • 22 In the aftermath of King ʿAbdallah’s death in January 2015, the Arabic and English media were floo (...)
  • 23 Al-Rasheed, 2017.
  • 24 The King appoints all of the assembly members.

10Particularly during the reign of King ʿAbdallah, who ascended to the throne in 2005, the state promoted inclusive reform vis-à-vis women, to the extent that he became known as “naīr al-marʾa (“the woman’s advocate”).22 King ʿAbdallah’s image as the emancipator of women is not unlike that of King Fayṣal before him, who introduced mass education for girls in the 1960s.23 King ʿAbdallah gave women the right to vote in the municipal council elections and to compete in the Olympics for the first time. Not long after, in 2013, he appointed 30 women to the Shūra Council, the kingdom’s formal advisory body, mandating that no less than 20 percent of the 150-member body should be made up of women.24

  • 25 Al-Fāssī, 2015.

11Here, it is sufficient to highlight the two-pronged processes of gender reform underway in the kingdom. On the one hand, and more recently, the reform discourse increasingly targets women, through a patchwork of government agencies, measures, programs and priorities, royal decrees, statements and speeches, media reports, op-eds and stories as well as sponsored and registered charities.25 On the other hand, the relationship of women to the state is progressively more direct, epitomized by the introduction of independent identity cards for women in 2001. Previously, women were included in family identity cards, through the intermediary of their legal male guardians, such as the father, the husband, or the brother.

  • 26 Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 289.
  • 27 Al-Qūwayflī, 2011.
  • 28 Quoted from my field notes, written on March 27, 2014.

12Scholars along with analysts and activists who are critical of the Saudi state highlight the apparent contradiction of an authoritarian monarchy promoting women’s empowerment. 26 They distinguish between reform decisions that empower women from the outset, and those that benefit politically from appearing to do so. For example, Al-Qūwayflī contends that the “real reasons” for introducing independent identity cards for women were the security measures demanded by the geopolitical aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 27 Liberal and feminist activists echo Al-Qūwayflī’s critical opinion arguing that female representation in the formerly male-dominated Shūra Council does not translate into empowerment, as women still require permission to travel and do not enjoy protection by family law in the case of divorce, among other customary and legal restrictions.28

  • 29 Aldosari, 2016
  • 30 For the various forms requiring male guardian consent, see the appendices attached to this report (...)
  • 31 Human Rights Watch, 2016.

13Most recently, the National Transformation Plan (Saudi Vision 2030) that the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salmān rolled out with great fanfare in April 2016, which envisages a greater role for women in the job market, does not indicate a serious move towards dismantling the male guardianship system, a leading reason for women’s low employment rates .29 The guardianship system places restrictions on a Saudi woman’s mobility, marriage, work and education by requiring the authorization of her male guardian, usually her father, husband or nearest of male kin. This system effectively treats Saudi women as legal minors with regards to life-altering decisions, from undergoing surgery to enrolling in university.30 Although the ambitious plan’s stated objectives are diversifying the state’s sources of revenue and increasing the average household income, not addressing and altering the male guardianship system will result in a negligible percentage increase in female employment rates. Moreover, and although the Ministry of Labor no longer requires male guardian consent for the employment of women since 2013, this requirement remains at the discretion of the employer. In fact, most of the substantial and well-known employers of women, including government institutions as well as banks, health centers, universities and schools, continue to insist on prior male guardian consent.31 It is within this context that the individuated female figure of the divorcée becomes an object of reform and Ṣamar’s multiple encounters and interactions with the state unfold.

The Charitable Mawaddah Association for the Reduction of Divorce: Working through the Figure of the Divorcée

  • 32 Hereafter, I refer to the association in shorthand as Mawaddah.
  • 33 I observed a meeting between members of the board and foreign experts on October 3, 2013.

14“Have our families become threatened?” inquires the Charitable Mawaddah Association for the Reduction of Divorce and its Effects32 in its introductory brochure. Alongside the question written in large cursive Arabic, a graph shows the increasing rates of marriage and divorce. Underneath, key statistics on divorce are provided, such as 60% of divorce cases occur during the first year of marriage and the majority of cases under review at court are divorce cases. Although the association is concerned with the “stability of the Saudi family and its health”, and aims to contribute to “the reduction of the rates of divorce in Saudi society and the treatment of its effects,” it largely works through the individuated figure of the divorcée. In the words of the princess who serves as chair of the board, “we cannot reach stability of the family if we don’t have stable persons.”33 More specifically, the association seeks to reform strictly female members of the family. This section thus lays out how self-feminization unfolds at a state-sponsored charitable association through an ethnographic account of Mawaddah’s approach, its interviews with potential beneficiaries and its “field visits”. Mawaddah’s reliance on administrative categories, bureaucratic techniques and processes, and appeal to a language of “self-care”, reveals that divorcées are singled out, individuated and peeled away from their wider social relations, and ultimately made responsible for themselves. Whether separated, abandoned or legally divorced, a woman is expected to take care of herself alone and through the mediation of such state interventions.

  • 34 See Derbal, 2011, Le Renard, 2008.
  • 35 Derbal, 2011.

15The charitable sector finds itself under both the patronage of the royal family in order to exist administratively and raise funds from private donors and corporations alike34 as well as under the strict bureaucratic control of the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), whose authorization is required for the most banal of procedures. On the one hand, female members of the royal family tend to serve as founding members and board members of women’s associations. On the other hand, the National Authority for Associations and Civil Organizations, the state agency that supervises and evaluates welfare associations and organizations, is “directly overseen” by the royal family.35

Mawaddah’s Divorcée between the Bedouin and the Poor

  • 36 Hasso, 2011, p. 26.
  • 37 Both asīr and usra derive from asara, which means to protect or to tie together. Thus, and while u (...)
  • 38 Sonbol, 2012.
  • 39 Hasso, 2011, p. 26.
  • 40 For the association’s website, see

16Mawaddah’s approach to the family hinges on an instrumentalist understanding of the family as a social unit, or usra, in contrast to ʿāʾila, which denotes a more extensive and powerful network of people. Usra is a spatial way of referring to the family as a “nuclear family of parents and children in an architecturally bounded, private household”,36 since it is etymologically related to asīr, which means prisoner or captive.37 Throughout the Gulf and wider Arab region, family norms and structures are shifting from ʿāʾila to usra, a term that is increasingly used to refer to family, household or house.38 Effectively, usra lends itself to enumeration and individuation, and is conducive to the “governance and management of individuals and collectivities”.39 On its website and brochures, Mawaddah leans on this spatial definition of the family, typically providing photos of a four-member family seated on a couch in the privacy and intimacy of a house.40 The family is characteristically made up of one mother, father, son and daughter. At the same time, activities and discourses that are developed and led by women to produce “stable persons” for the sake of the stability of the family, and by metaphorical extension, the stability of the nation, may only legitimately target women as its beneficiaries. This is particularly evident in Mawaddah’s social work division.

  • 41 Al-Fahad, 2004, p. 36.
  • 42 Menoret, 2005, p. 91.
  • 43 Le Renard, 2008.

17The social work division is charged with receiving applications for various support programs Mawaddah provides, and sifting through them according to pre-established categories. During this process, social workers, who are regularly addressed as the khubarāʾ (experts) in order to index their specialized and authoritative knowledge, are tasked with producing a file number for each applicant by filling in various forms and storing the collected information in a database. The divorcées who approach the division tend to be poor women of Bedouin descent, and the social workers tend to be comfortable and salaried women of sedentary descent. In this context, the category of the divorcée follows on the heels of recognizable and pre-existing categories of modernization, namely the Bedouin and the poor. Historically, they have been the focus of state-initiated charity and reform. On the one hand, the Saudi state is first and foremost a “aari project that aimed, among other things, to end Bedouin historical hegemony throughout pre-modern Arabia”.41 Over two centuries of an uneven process of Wahhabi and aari proselytism culminated in a Saudi state that was established and built through the forced sedentarization of the Bedouin.42 The modernizing state instead appropriated the figure of the Bedouin as a marker of Saudi national identity and folklore. On the other hand, the charitable sector has grown around the problem of poverty, increasingly mediatized since 2002.43 In contrast with the practice of royal gift giving that harks back to the first Saudi state in the 18th century, when it was the historic duty of the ruler towards rich and poor nomads alike, and that continues to be practiced until today, the charitable sector exclusively addresses “the poor”. Accordingly, it is unsurprising to find the figure of the divorcée conflated with the figure of the Bedouin and the poor as an object of study and change in Mawaddah.

  • 44 Mawaddah “field visit” on October 24, 2013.

18In this way, the unhealthy practices of families who make up the Saudi nation are explicitly or implicitly indexed as Bedouin practices. The poor Bedouin divorcée is Mawaddah’s “poster child”, from the size of her unruly family to her unstable husband who neglects to register the members of his family at the relevant authorities and procure the necessary documents. “Most likely the father is not educated, this is their culture, they come from the desert,” stated Manāl, one of the social workers, in a most matter-of-fact way to explain why Fawzīyya’s eight children do not possess ithbātāt (proof of identity).44 Fawzīyya for her part was neither shy nor embarrassed to disclose that most of her children do not attend school due to their lack of official papers. Manāl’s colleague, Rīmā, further clarified that brothers do not allow their sisters to hold personal identity cards because of the obligatory photos, offering an anecdote about one of the association’s beneficiaries who misplaced her phone and became hysterical, exclaiming “They will kill me! My brothers will kill me!” The beneficiary feared that her personal photos might be released and disseminated, which would anger her siblings, “since they are ‘Bedouin’ and hold honor dear to their hearts”.

The Interviews: The Divorcée between a Number and a Face

19By 9am in the morning, interviews led by the social workers with new applicants to the association are already underway. Interviews generally establish the eligibility of applicants for the association’s various programs by establishing her marital status. Depending on whether she is formally divorced, simply separated, or abandoned, she is then directed to other divisions within the association, such as the legal division or the training division, or marked for a follow-up “field visit”. From the outset, the interview requires data collection and storage corresponding neatly with an identity that is in turn verified through resort to bureaucratic artifacts and procedures.

20A social worker can squeeze in between two to three interviews in one morning. Armed with a prewritten form, she seeks to gather the necessary data that may potentially turn the applicant into a āla (case) or a mustafida (beneficiary). In this sense, she is not unlike an administrator or a clerk who seeks to obtain the minimum of information in order to process a file with no strings attached. Starting with the applicant’s civil registry number through her level of education, work experience and the circumstances surrounding her conjugal rupture, the interview is a short, straight-faced affair. The social worker ascertains the basic facts, and most importantly, the applicant’s āla ijtimāʿiyya, which literally means her social condition or status, but specifically refers to her marital status as listed above: either divorced, separated, abandoned or “other”. The use of the literal “social” to refer to “marital” implies that the latter gives rise to a thicker and more expansive situation or state of being, which in turn demands intervention and redress. This further explains the shorthand words often used by the social workers to refer to Mawaddah’s applicants who eventually become – not all – recipients of either financial support, legal counseling, training or job placement: āla (case) or mustafida (beneficiary). Along with the applicant’s file number, under which data is gathered and stored, such labels serve to anonymize her as one among many others and make her more amenable to enumeration, categorization and extrapolation.

  • 45 Le Renard, 2014.
  • 46 Le Renard, 2014.

21At the same time as the applicant becomes a case or a number, she is also obliged to be legible and visible. This is an ambivalent process that resonates with the state’s ostensibly contradictory practices of “unveiling Saudi women”.45 In the post-9/11 era, the state seeks to publicly and internationally display and promote successful and unveiled women as a “communication strategy”46 particularly through the foreign media, all the while extending its surveillance of the population, which necessitates the bureaucratic identification of citizens and especially women uncovering their faces. Such practices of “unveiling” women are found in the requirements and questions that unfold during the interview:

  • 47 Quoted from my field notes, written on October 30, 2013.

A sign hangs in the waiting room. It reads that women should uncover their faces. A woman named Waḍḥa emerges through the door of the waiting room. Lamiyāʾ is the only one available to meet and interview her, as Manāl and Rīmā are conducting “field visits”. Settling into our chairs around the small white and circular table in the interview room, Lamiyāʾ asks Waḍḥa to uncover her face. Waḍḥa lifts up her niqāb to reveal the fresh face of a young woman in her twenties.47

  • 48 Kelly, 2006, p. 91.

22Following the interview with Waḍḥa, and as Lamiyāʾ begins to enter Waḍḥa’s information into the electronic database, I inquire about the sign hanging in the waiting room. Lamiyāʾ explains that the requirement to unveil is a way to ensure that the face of an applicant corresponds with her identity card photo. Identity manipulation and theft are not unheard of throughout the kingdom, especially in those legal and administrative spaces where access to rights and privileges depend on an individuated identity. Yet this process of recalling and verifying the identity of an applicant through the bureaucratic artifact of an identity card simultaneously produces legibility and illegibility, visibility and invisibility. As she becomes physically visible and legible to the social workers and the association at large, her “legal presence” is nevertheless hidden “behind layers of administration and piles of paper”.48 Even as the social workers seek to know her in a physical and visceral way, their reliance on bureaucratic artifacts and procedures, such as the identity card, the prewritten form and the database, also erase her completely. In other words, she is no longer identified strictly in relation to a face, a family name or a story, but according to a more abstract number or case. This echoes the documentary practices of the state, which achieve an expanding degree of control and organization of private identities.

  • 49 Le Renard, 2014
  • 50 Ibid., 2014, p. 4.
  • 51 The Saudi nationalization scheme seeks to reduce national unemployment by requiring private sector (...)
  • 52 Le Renard, 2014, p. 68.

23On the whole, most women who approach Mawaddah for various kinds of support are advised to join its training programs and participate in its events that are intended to help them find jobs eventually. If an applicant is simply separated (muʿalaqa) or abandoned (mahjūra), she is not eligible for financial support and is invited to join the new “Go Work” initiative, which supports women through the stages of finding a job. Even when the social workers make a final recommendation for financial support in the questionnaire, like subsidizing rent or covering the tuition fees of dependents, they inevitably couple the recommendation with such articulated admonitions as “do not feel sorry for yourself” and “you are more important than society”. They urge many of the divorcées who turn to them to join vocational training programs and to seek employment. Among the last "field visits” I tagged along on, Lamiyāʾ and I met ʿAnūd who lives with her mother in a house inherited from her father. ʿAnūd and her mother receive 800 and 850 Saudi riyal respectively (USD 213 and USD 226) monthly as state social security for divorcées and widows. Her mother was apprehensive about our visit and left before we arrived, leading ʿAnūd to tremble with tears. Lamiyāʾ urged her not to shed a tear for others, and encouraged her to enroll in courses, by coming to the office and completing the “training questionnaire.” Lamiyāʾ’s words are typical of a self-help language, which combines the goals of good mental health and personal success, and resonates among young, educated, urban women.49 Work is presented as a means of personal growth and more importantly emancipation from this kind of “condition”. This does not part ways with the “model of femininity”50 promoted in the context of state reform targeting Saudi women, which encourages young women to participate in the labor force and its Saudization.51 In addition, the narrative of self-care and improvement contributes, albeit indirectly, to private sector expansion, which requires “devoted and well-behaved employees”.52

Ṣamar Left Hanging

Then I sat down with myself. I said, Ṣamar, do you want all of this? At the courts, no one listens to you, no one believes you, al-amdulillah, you are in an apartment, your family is almost, practically with you, supporting you … my daughters are with me, I hired a nanny, I hired a driver, I bought a car – I pay for everything – I organized my budget. I became calmer. I stopped calling him. Tari al-safar (permission document to travel) – I don’t want it – I don’t want anything from him.

I went to the judge, and I told him I’m dropping all the cases. He told me, “You made up?” I said, “No we didn’t make up.” He said, “So why are you dropping the cases?” I said, “Because I see nothing in the cases. I don’t see any help from you in the cases.” He said, “all the cases?” I said “yes – they are the rescission of the marriage contract (faskh al-nikā) and the alimony (al-nafaqa) – I leave my life in God’s hands. None of you can stop Him.”

Z.: So, now, you’re basically muʿalaga (hanging).

Ṣamar: Muʿalaga.

  • 53 Interview with Ṣamar, conducted on May 18, 2015.

Ṣamar lights a cigarette.53

24Nearly one year following our first visit to the Personal Status Court of Riyadh for Ṣamar’s first court hearing, I met Ṣamar in her new apartment, located a few minutes on foot from her parents’ house in the Khaleej district. As I made my way through the middle-class neighborhood, distinguished by the modest size of houses and their walls as well as their proximity to each other and to street life, I struggled to comprehend that Ṣamar’s new address was in fact not her parents’. All the while directing me by telephone to her parents’ house, Ṣamar then instructed me to round the corner, find a big brown door on the left, enter through it and climb the stairs to the second floor. The intimacy and sociality of these narrow streets, a far cry from the atomizing expanses, boulevards and walls of Northern Riyadh, eventually revealed that Ṣamar and her daughters were essentially not on their own. During just this visit, an uninterrupted trickle of family found its way into Ṣamar’s salon, a mishmash of secondhand furniture donated by her sister-in-law Ḥiṣa and new furniture bought at half price from outlet stores. The patchwork and piecemeal process of mending her family – the social relations that make up her house – became clearer as we toured the apartment. Gradually, and starting with one bed given to her by Ḥiṣa that she shared with her daughters, she was able to furnish an ornately pink bedroom for them with matching glittery and sparkly accessories in addition to a more sober wood-heavy bedroom for her sons, who live with their father, Ṣamar’s first husband, in Kuwait. Wherever a corner seemed to call for attention, her friends and Nūra, ʿAbdul Raḥmān’s niece, had dressed it up with mirrors, lamps or other gifts of embellishment.

  • 54 Merry, 2006, p. 185.
  • 55 When she fled her conjugal home, she grabbed her daughters’ passports in addition to a negligible (...)

25Yet the female solidarity with which Ṣamar was able to piece together a new house, outside of the very central relation of marriage upon which houses in Riyadh are conventionally built, belied her “alienating and empty”54 subject position within the law. Ṣamar was now contending with a number of cases brought against her by ʿAbdul Raḥmān, including marital abandonment (nushūz), custody, possession of money and official documents (mustanadāt rasmiyya).55 The early euphoria and relief she felt when she left her conjugal home along with her two daughters, having documented and secured medical and police evidence of her abuse at the hands of ʿAbdul Raḥmān, was in abeyance. Juggling the move to the new apartment, her full-time job as a dental hygienist, care for her daughters, and recent swelling in her body requiring treatment abroad, Ṣamar was reaching the end of her tether. Without legal training and regular access to legal advice, her will to continue petitioning the court, and by extension the state, for protection, compensation and divorce was on the wane. Conversely, ʿAbdul Raḥmān had both time and resources at his disposal to hire lawyers and bring charges against Ṣamar. Ṣamar had become effectively muʿalaqa, which literally means “hanging” and implies that she is neither married nor divorced.

  • 56 Das, 2007, p. 63.
  • 57 Al Riyadh, 2016.
  • 58 At the time of fieldwork and writing, it was illegal for women to drive in the kingdom. Although a (...)

26What made of Ṣamar’s position as a muʿalaqa “vulnerable”56 a priori is her embeddedness in an overarching and well-established male guardianship system. It is “as if she is without a walī amr (male legal guardian)”57 altogether, since it remains unclear who is legally accountable for her, her husband or her agnatic kin, such as her father or brother. Thus, and just as Ṣamar was preparing and filing claims of abuse at the Summary Court and the Personal Status Court since she could not afford a lawyer, ʿAbdul Raḥmān was increasingly exercising a stifling grip over her daily life through his discretionary authority as her male guardian. Most recently, he refused to give her travel permission (tari al-safar ) to fly abroad for medical care in order to treat a tumor in her body, which was subsidized by the hospital in which she works. She missed a handful of conferences abroad and risked losing her license as a dental hygienist as a result of this travel ban. What she describes as essential for running her daily life as an “employed woman” (“imraʾa muwaafa”), or working woman, including a driver to accompany her on the long daily commute to her workplace,58 located at the far end of Northern Riyadh, and a nanny to receive her daughters at home while she is still at work, is prohibited without the legal consent of her male guardian. Consequently, she hired a driver and nanny from the black market. In other words, she employed undocumented migrant workers and may face financial and legal penalties for doing so. The apartment lease contract is in her brother’s name, as women do not have the legal right to rent a residence.

27In effect, months had passed and the cases she raised in both the Summary Court and the Personal Status Court were stalling and not yielding results, eventually leading her to drop them. On the one hand, the criminal charges related to domestic abuse did not come to fruition. The Summary Court did not follow up with Ṣamar regarding the criminal charges, despite her unremitting inquiries and to-and-fros between the court and the police station. The bureaucratic arena itself was unprepared to deal with her claims,

  • 59 Quoted from my field notes, written on May 18, 2015.

Every time I call them or go to them, ’You have to wait because the government made a decision about imprisonment, for women’s rights, after he assaulted you by two days. So we have to enter your file into the system.’ I say ok. One month, two months pass, months pass, and I call them, I call them. They say not yet, they say you have go to the police to get the report anew…59

28She was also dismayed to learn, only after raising the criminal charges against ʿAbdul Raḥmān, that the penalty for domestic abuse is actually paid to the state and not to the assaulted woman herself. Her expectation of financial compensation was a key motivation in her engagement with the state and her imagination of how this interaction might be both financially and morally rewarding.

  • 60 Nushūz literally means “rebellion” and generally refers to the abandonment of marital duties and m (...)
  • 61 Merry, 2006, p. 182.

29Meanwhile, and on the other hand, ʿAbdul Raḥmān had raised his own cases against Ṣamar, which prevailed over her cases. In particular, his legal claim against Ṣamar of nushūz (disobedience) outweighed her testimony and more significantly her substantial documentary evidence that she left their conjugal home out of fear for her life.60 The claim of nushūz led ʿAbdul Raḥmān to assert his right to inqiyād (submission to a guardian’s authority). When the judge declared Ṣamar disobedient, or rebellious, she realized that she no longer stood to gain within the bureaucratic arena. Despite using state-issued and validated documents as well as a recently promulgated law as grounds for her claims, these did not yield tangible results nor any desired outcome. On the contrary, the tables had turned against her, as ʿAbdul Raḥmān continued to provide the same amount in maintenance for her and her daughters, a tiny fraction of his earnings. Scarcely one year following her first court session, Ṣamar was far less inclined to interact with state authorities and ultimately decided to drop her court cases, as revealed at the outset of this section. The practices of the legal system were central in her decision to give up and “no longer think about her grievances in terms of rights”.61 At the same time, and through the work of remembering and recording her abuse, Ṣamar was able to make the abuse real and to put an end to it. In the process, she not only negotiated but more importantly drew new boundaries around her intimate life. She unfastened herself from an abusive and unrewarding relationship, and gathered the confidence to establish a house separate from that of her parents and natal family. In this way, while she continued to require the legal support of a male guardian for running the logistics of her everyday life, she was now the guardian of her imagination, her future, and crucially, her relationship with the state. She was able to interpret and imagine a different future through the mediation of the state, irrespective of the practical outcomes of engaging the state, its courts, laws and processes. While her engagement with the state might have constituted a “devil’s bargain”, this bargain nonetheless breathed new life into the way she was able not only to be with and for her daughters, but with and for herself.


  • 62 The reign of King Salmān has been characterized by its azm, steadfastness.
  • 63 Al-Fawaz, 2015.
  • 64 Ibid.
  • 65 Human Rights Watch, 2016.

30As the masculine state becomes more “steadfast”62 in its feminine turn, Saudi Arabia will continue to champion women’s causes in the economic, political and social spheres. In turn, more and more women will increasingly engage and petition state offices. According to media reports, there has been a 30 percent surge in lawsuits filed by women.63 In parallel, courts nation-wide are increasingly hearing personal rights cases involving women such as divorce, alimony, visitation rights and custody of children. Lawyers attribute this increase to the role played by the media in “creating awareness about women and their rights, and how they can seek redress for their grievances through the country’s courts”.64 At the same time, and according to medical staff, women are increasingly turning to hospitals in order to obtain medical reports of their physical abuse.65

31Privileging the state in the analysis of gender matters, however, mainly serves to highlight inconsistencies and contradictions at the level of state actors and institutions, and to show that women generally stand to lose even as they gain from any bargain with the state. In Saudi Arabia, a divorcée is made vulnerable a priori by her embeddedness in an overarching and well-established male guardianship system, while statist discourse and practices reconstitute her in other subordinated categories such as the Bedouin and the poor. Yet ethnographic attention to the embodied encounters and interactions between divorcées and the processes, offices and officials of the state reveal that they are not being made victims. Rather, they are continuously experimenting and interpreting what the state might offer them, all the while re-imagining and re-negotiating the boundaries of their intimate lives.

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1 Quoted from my field notes, written on June 5, 2014. Names have been changed in order to protect the anonymity of my interlocutors.

2 Interview with Ṣamar, conducted on April 3, 2014.

3 Quoted from my field notes, written on June 5, 2014.

4 Human Rights Watch, 2013.

5 Al-Bishr, 2014.

6 Sonbol, 2012, p. 316.

7 Hasso, 2011.

8 Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 135.

9 Hasso, 2011, p. 108.

10 Ibid., 2013, p. 26.

11 Ibid., 2013.

12 Al-Mohammad and Peluso, 2012.

13 Das, 2007.

14 Hasso, 2011, p. 4.

15 Al Ghāmdi, 2015.

16 After an ethnographic stint at the officially registered charitable association I discuss below, I realized that ethnographic fieldwork through informal and personal networks of friends was more productive than formal channels. This is not to say that serendipity did not play a part in the way fieldwork unfolded. Indeed, my initial meeting with Ṣamar occurred following months of regular weekend visits to her sister-in-law Ḥiṣa. Still, I did not ask for permission from the Ministry of Justice in order to attend and observe court hearings or follow cases of khuluʿ, since I expected to meet an impasse with regards to official authorization. I veered away from official access and instead accompanied women I knew or came to know into spaces of contestation and renegotiation.

17 Mitchell, 2006.

18 Hughes, 2015, p. 290.

19 Al-Rasheed, 2013.

20 In this context, “unveiled women” refers to women whose faces – not hair – are uncovered.

21 Al-Rasheed, 2017.

22 In the aftermath of King ʿAbdallah’s death in January 2015, the Arabic and English media were flooded with such appellations, for instance see Makkah (2015).

23 Al-Rasheed, 2017.

24 The King appoints all of the assembly members.

25 Al-Fāssī, 2015.

26 Al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 289.

27 Al-Qūwayflī, 2011.

28 Quoted from my field notes, written on March 27, 2014.

29 Aldosari, 2016

30 For the various forms requiring male guardian consent, see the appendices attached to this report (in the Arabic original format) or (translated into English).

31 Human Rights Watch, 2016.

32 Hereafter, I refer to the association in shorthand as Mawaddah.

33 I observed a meeting between members of the board and foreign experts on October 3, 2013.

34 See Derbal, 2011, Le Renard, 2008.

35 Derbal, 2011.

36 Hasso, 2011, p. 26.

37 Both asīr and usra derive from asara, which means to protect or to tie together. Thus, and while usra may connote boundedness, linguistically this boundedness also entails protection and trust.

38 Sonbol, 2012.

39 Hasso, 2011, p. 26.

40 For the association’s website, see

41 Al-Fahad, 2004, p. 36.

42 Menoret, 2005, p. 91.

43 Le Renard, 2008.

44 Mawaddah “field visit” on October 24, 2013.

45 Le Renard, 2014.

46 Le Renard, 2014.

47 Quoted from my field notes, written on October 30, 2013.

48 Kelly, 2006, p. 91.

49 Le Renard, 2014

50 Ibid., 2014, p. 4.

51 The Saudi nationalization scheme seeks to reduce national unemployment by requiring private sector companies to hire a specified percentage of Saudi nationals.

52 Le Renard, 2014, p. 68.

53 Interview with Ṣamar, conducted on May 18, 2015.

54 Merry, 2006, p. 185.

55 When she fled her conjugal home, she grabbed her daughters’ passports in addition to a negligible amount of money compared with her husband’s monthly income.

56 Das, 2007, p. 63.

57 Al Riyadh, 2016.

58 At the time of fieldwork and writing, it was illegal for women to drive in the kingdom. Although a written ban on women driving did not exist, national driving licenses were not issued to them.

59 Quoted from my field notes, written on May 18, 2015.

60 Nushūz literally means “rebellion” and generally refers to the abandonment of marital duties and more specifically “acts which hamper the purpose of marriage” (Mir-Hosseini, 1993, p. 47). These acts range from a woman’s “overt” refusal to have sex with her husband to “covert” ones such as not being physically available, by leaving her conjugal home without her husband’s permission (ibid).

61 Merry, 2006, p. 182.

62 The reign of King Salmān has been characterized by its azm, steadfastness.

63 Al-Fawaz, 2015.

64 Ibid.

65 Human Rights Watch, 2016.

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Zina Sawaf, « Encountering the State: Women and divorce in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia »Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 10 | 2018, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2019, consulté le 17 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Zina Sawaf

Lecturer, SOAM Department, American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon

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