Saudi Arabia: Human Rights

SAUDI ARABIA AND HUMAN RIGHTS: US Department of State 2005 Report (Extracts)

On April 3, the late King Fahd issued a royal decree endorsing a reorganization plan for the judiciary proposed by the ministerial committee for administrative reforms. During the year the government was implementing the plan under which Shari'a remains the basis for the judicial system. 

The government permitted Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate cases involving domestic issues, inheritance, and Islamic endowments. However, there were only two judges. The two courts, one in Al-Hasa and the other in Qatif, handled cases of Shi'a family law. However, these courts did not have adequate resources to serve the large Shi'a population in the Eastern Province, and either party to a dispute can appeal the Shi'a court's decision to a Shari'a (Sunni) court based on the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. 

There was no comparable right for non-Muslims or foreigners, whose cases were handled in Shari'a courts.

A woman's testimony does not carry the same weight as that of a man. In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Under the Hanbali interpretation of Shari'a followed in the kingdom, judges may discount the testimony of persons who are not practicing Muslims or who do not adhere to Hanbali doctrine. Legal sources reported that testimony by Shi'a was often ignored in courts of law or was deemed to have less weight than testimony by Sunnis. 

Female parties to court proceedings such as divorce and family law cases generally had to deputize male relatives to speak on their behalf. In the absence of two witnesses, or four witnesses in the case of adultery, confessions before a judge were almost always required for criminal conviction--a situation that has led prosecuting authorities to coerce confessions from suspects by threats and abuse.

The government enforced most social and Islamic religious norms, the government's interpretations of which are matters of law. Women may not marry noncitizens without government permission; men must obtain government permission to marry noncitizen women outside the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In accordance with Shari'a, women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims; men may marry Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims. The government does not refuse marriage licenses between Sunni and Shi'a couples; tradition and culture, not law, restrict marriages between Sunni and Shi'a citizens.


Shari'a prohibits abuse and violence against all innocent persons, including women. Although the government did not keep statistics on spousal abuse or other forms of violence against women, such violence and abuse appeared to be common problems based on anecdotal and media information available regarding physical spousal abuse and violence against women. Hospital workers reported that many women were admitted for treatment of injuries that apparently resulted from spousal violence; hospitals now are required to report any suspicious injuries to authorities.

Law and custom discriminate against women. Although they have the right to own property and are entitled to financial support from their husbands or male relatives, women have few political or social rights and were not treated as equal members of society. There were no active women's rights groups. Women may not legally drive motor vehicles and were restricted in their use of public facilities when men were present. Women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections. Women risked arrest by the religious police for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who was not an employee or a close male relative. On July 24 the religious police issued a statement that they never have, and never will, employ women. 

The law provides that women may not be admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of a male relative; however this was not generally enforced.  By law and custom women may not undertake domestic or foreign travel alone.

In public, a woman was expected to wear an abaya (a black garment that covers the entire body) and also to cover her head and hair. The religious police generally expected Muslim women to cover their faces, and non-Muslim women from other countries in Asia and Africa to comply more fully with local customs of dress than non-Muslim Western women. During the year, religious police admonished and harassed women who failed to wear an abaya and hair cover. 

Women also were subject to discrimination under Shari'a as interpreted in the country, which stipulates that daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers. While Shari'a provides women with a basis to own and dispose of property independently, women often were constrained from asserting such rights because of various legal and societal barriers, especially regarding employment and freedom of movement. In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women (see section 1.e.). Although Islamic law permits as many as four wives, polygamy was becoming less common due to demographic and economic changes. Islamic law enjoins a man to treat each wife equally. In practice, such equality was left to the discretion of the husband. The government placed greater restrictions on women than on men regarding marriage to non-citizens and non-Muslims. 

Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause. In doing so, men were required to pay immediately an amount of money agreed upon at the time of the marriage, which serves as a one-time alimony payment. Women who demonstrate legal grounds for divorce also were entitled to this alimony. If divorced or widowed, a Muslim woman normally may keep her children until they attain a specified age: seven years for boys and nine years for girls. Children over these ages were awarded to the divorced husband or the deceased husband's family. Numerous divorced foreign women continued to be prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children after divorce.

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