What Are the Rights of Arab Women in Marriage?

What Are the Rights of Arab Women in Marriage?

Arab societies are heavily impacted by traditional interpretations of Islamic teachings and rules as well as patriarchal socio-cultural systems which shape views on women’s rights and can have an effectful influence on implementation of policies promoting women’s rights in Arab nations.

Tunisia under its first president Habib Bourguiba made significant reforms, such as banning polygamy and giving women the right to divorce.

Personal Status Laws

Arab states’ personal status laws, particularly that of Saudi Arabia, can have an outsized impact on women in marriage. Their codification of male guardianship over women and their subservience to husbands creates domestic violence and sexual abuse more easily by giving men more leeway to exert power against their wives.

These rules also discourage women from filing for divorce or remarriage, especially those financially dependent upon their former partners. If a woman refuses to have sexual relations with her former partner or move into their marital home he provides, custody could be lost; she could even be prohibited from traveling with him and having contact other than sexual relations for up to three months post-divorce (known as nafaqa).

Women’s rights activists had long advocated for reform of personal status law that would make it more equitable, particularly as regards gender equality and freedom from traditional religious interpretation. Al Moussawi’s ruling was an impressive victory in their quest.

This ruling underlines the urgent need for a profound shift in women’s roles within society, as well as an overhaul in Arab culture to lead towards increased independence from traditional religion and its associated beliefs. This can only be accomplished through systematic education and public engagement with enlightened scholars as well as developing an active feminist movement which challenges patriarchal cultures.

While this ruling is encouraging, many women’s rights activists remain imprisoned or on trial on politically-motivated charges and are thus unable to comment publicly about their situation or fight for reforms. Their lack of input in creating the draft law puts them at a distinct disadvantage during its creation; as well as being at risk of being punished if they voice criticism against current state of affairs; nevertheless women’s rights activists have tirelessly campaigned since its introduction for changes to be made to Personal Status Law.


Women seeking divorce in many Arab countries must undergo the Khula’ or redemption process. This allows a woman to end her marriage if she can demonstrate that living with her husband has caused them harm; under certain conditions such as cruelty/abuse/failure to provide, this request for redemption could be justified;

Attaining reform of Khula’ requires guidance by Islamic scholars with an enlightened view of Islamic law. Any attempts that promote women’s empowerment or economic equality tend to draw widespread public criticism and moral panic from conservative religious leaders and their followers – who use populist rhetoric against any legal changes that directly empower women or provide more financial independence (Englehart & Miller 2014; Lussier and Fish 2016).

Reform of personal status law must be undertaken under the guidance of experienced scholars who possess an in-depth knowledge of its implications on wider society. Any attempt at introducing new legal measures must also take into account that such changes will need time to take effect and that change should occur gradually over time.

Even with such obstacles in place, signs of progress are evident across the Arab world with laws that have given women greater control of their own lives. Yet more must be done to ensure these laws achieve their intended objective of progressive social change.


Divorce remains an emotional subject in the Arab world and often has devastating social ramifications that impact family and friends, particularly women who may be perceived as broken in society. Women who choose divorce often endure stigmatization and discrimination from society at large – leading them to remain trapped in an abusive marriage that leaves them suffering its aftermath.

Women have grown more aware of their rights since becoming independent and educated over time; as a result, many now assert the right to divorce as part of this rights awareness movement.

Saudi Arabian laws surrounding divorce can be an obstacle, with its male guardianship system at odds with CEDAW (The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). Women without accessing legal services or reporting abuse without support from male relatives cannot access them and legally register as spouses without approval from her primary guardian.

Under current Saudi law, a woman may only request a divorce if her male paternal guardian approves of her marriage contract. Possible guardians include her father and possibly brothers, uncles, cousins or if there are none available even judges may defer to opinions held by guardians regarding suitability for marriage of potential brides to determine suitability for marriage applications; Human Rights Watch research reveals that Saudi judges often defer to guardian’s opinions when making marriage applications decisions; this could prompt the refusal of applications altogether by judge to consider.

Women caught in this predicament must choose between meeting family obligations and living their own healthy and fulfilling lives, leading them to consider emotional divorce (also referred to as “hidden divorce”) which results in discontent with marital relations without an actual legal divorce being filed for.


Arab societies, supported by patriarchy based on traditional interpretations of Islamic teachings and rules, have fostered an assumption that women’s economic rights, marriage and inheritance issues should be handled within their family units alone. Therefore, any law designed to address these concerns often faces strong resistance from opponents (primarily Muslim religious scholars and leaders) who use moral arguments against them (Englehart & Miller 2014; Glas et al 2018).

Saudi Arabia requires permission from the government for women who want to marry foreigners; this process includes background checks, medical exams and drug testing (Independent Researcher 12 Jan 2018 / Journalist 9 Jan 2018; GLMM). Furthermore, married foreigners do not automatically gain citizenship but must sponsor their residency independently (GLMM 2018a).

These restrictions have a serious detrimental impact on women’s financial security. Even though the PSL allows women to initiate divorce, their financial security remains vulnerable due to costs associated with remarriage and resettling children (Alsawalqa, 2022). Furthermore, should their husbands fail to provide sufficient support or abandon them altogether, women may be forced to work illegally abroad in order to survive (Alsawalqa 2016; International Labour Organization 2017).

Gender quotas have long been seen as an indicator of democracy. Yet gender quotas were used by autocrats such as former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to maintain an appearance of democracy after popular revolutions toppled their regimes.

Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi established a gender quota in 2020 that accorded female parliamentarians 25 percent representation; despite this seemingly high representation rate, however, their numbers do not accurately represent Egypt’s population.

Repressive actions against courageous women’s rights activists has undone much of their progress. Many activists remain imprisoned or face travel bans and restrictions on freedom of expression; others have even been threatened or murdered for speaking out about the harmful effects of male guardianship systems; those allowed to leave are often monitored by their families until it comes time to return home.


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