March 2, 2016

Family Identification Documents for Saudi Women: An Identity Dilemma

Saudi women and their children walk along a street in the capital Riyadh. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

A New Development

In a recent development, the Saudi Civil Status Department started issuing divorced or widowed women family registry cards. The step provides these Saudi mothers with proof of their relationship to their children when it’s required, such as in schools, hospitals, or hotels. The media celebrated the news as a “reform” of women’s rights in a country “held back by a powerful clergy and ultra-conservative society.” However, there is deeper discrimination, in law and practice, presenting obstacles to Saudi women’s access to identification documents.

What Are the Problems of the Existing Law?

The Civil-Status Law that regulates access to personal and family identification considers fathers as heads of the family, entrusting them with the sole authority in matters related to their children and spouses, regardless of their age. Even if mothers were able to get access to a family identification document, they cannot register or update the information about their family members in a similar fashion to that of fathers. Typically, a family registry card shows the picture and civil registration information of the male head of a household at the top followed by a table containing the names and civil registration numbers of all his dependents, women and children, without any pictures. The law then mandates a male child to obtain a personal identification document at a certain age while making the identification optional for girls and based on the conditional approval of their guardians.


Saudi identity card.

In its existing state, the Civil Status Law is rife with problems for women citizens. Fathers can simply abstain, for a variety of reasons, from registering or updating their children’s civil information, which explains why only 73 percent of births in Saudi Arabia are covered by the national civil registration system. In a country where women are mostly veiled and segregated, dependency on men for identification and therefore for obtaining services or resources becomes a necessity. In turn, the dependency renders women vulnerable and subject to misuse of their identifying information by their guardians. In some cases information of women on family cards has been used to conduct activities without their consent or to engage in more serious crimes such as human or drug trafficking.

At its core, the Civil Status Law reflects the unequal status of spouses on several levels. The law places the responsibility for reporting marriage, divorce, or annulment of marriage on men only. A birth or death in the family can only be registered by fathers or next-of-kin male relatives over 15 years of age, even if mothers were the caregivers of the deceased. Interestingly, the only exception is in the case of widowed women, who can register and update their children’s information in the family documents. The law reserves the prerogative of the fathers as heads of family until they die; afterward, this authority conveys to mothers.

A more interesting case is that of a Saudi woman married to a foreigner. The law denies foreign husbands access to family identification, yet the women married to foreigners still cannot get these documents.

Women are eligible for family identification based on criteria related to their marital status. Needless to say, a woman’s access to a family identification card will not give her equal authority over her own children to that of the father. Women will still need the permission of fathers in decisions related to their children unless they possess custody court papers outlining the specific permissible decisions over children (i.e. travel, education, health care).

In reality, the majority of Saudi women act and serve as heads of their families, whether fathers are present or not. While no statistics exist as to the number of families headed and cared for by women, the statistics on divorce are indicative. There are 96 divorce or annulment of marriage cases registered daily in Saudi courts. The highest proportion of cases clogging the legal system are complaints of fathers refusing financial responsibility for their children. In fact, the caseload is so large that the Ministry of Justice is actually considering legislation of a forced deduction of father’s income to support his children after divorce. Of course, transferring the guardianship to mothers instead of the negligent or abandoning fathers was not proposed.

Why the Official Approach to Reforming Women’s Rights in the Laws is Wrong

In recognition of the problematic and restrictive articles of the law, in 2015 the Consultative Council approved several amendments to the Civil Status Law aimed at controlling guardians’ abuse of women’s information for financial gains or criminal activities. These amendments are awaiting approval – though unlikely – by the Ministry of Interior. The amendments would allow mothers to obtain family cards, register their children, and update their civil information without the husband’s consent. However, the suggested amendments or allowing mothers access to family cards have not touched on the root cause of the problem; women are simply unrecognized by the state as equal.

The official discourse around “reforms” of women’s rights has often revolved around their domestic roles, while other functional aspects of a woman’s life have rarely been considered. For instance, some women members of the Consultative Council have argued for the amendments to the Civil Law based on the husband’s needs or position as head of the family. One of these women, Haya Al-Manee, appealed for more power to women by citing the examples of the wives of busy physcians or men serving in the army. By choosing those professions that serve the public good, she targeted the public sense of duty toward their families. Meanwhile, another member of the council, Nora Al-Adhwan, objected to the amendments as breaching the husbands’ prerogative as a guardian, suggesting that women should be given a copy of their husbands’ family cards without real power to update family information. Thus, women’s entitlement to family identification documents was debated in relation to husbands’ positions and privileges rather than to those of the mothers themselves. Such justifications reinforce the identity of a woman as a dependent and a substitute care provider to the man as a head of the family, only making decisions for the family if necessary.

The “Ideal Saudi Woman”

The unequal, institutionalized limitations of women’s access to family identification – or any identification for that matter – begs the question of why it was built that way in the first place. Since the establishment of the Saudi state, women citizens have served as a symbolic representation of the state’s Islamic or tribal identity. Women as a category are the “visible” representation of the state’s specific brand of Islam. An “ideal Saudi woman” is an obedient wife and mother, educated as her family permits, segregated from gender mixing unless necessary, and entrusted with preserving the Islamic morality and traditional values promoted by the state. Consequently, a woman is meant to be dependent on a man in the family rather than the head of one. In return, the family, as the core unit of the society, is meant to reinforce the state’s expectations of the different roles and responsibilities of gendered citizens. The position of the woman in the family is to pass on those values and traditions endorsed by the state to her children. To ensure compliance, the state ordained measures to support its conception of the “ideal” Saudi woman: forced gender-segregation, religious police to monitor women’s codes of dress and conduct, and most important, a guardianship policy requiring women to obtain a male guardian’s permission to access services and resources. Moreover, an ideal, obedient Saudi woman will not marry a foreign husband. If she does, she compromises her partnership with the state by being obedient to the values and traditions of another male’s country. Therefore, a Saudi woman “belonging” to the foreign husband will not have access to family identification and state services, nor will she be able to confer her own citizenship to her husband and children.


Neither the powerful clergy nor the ultra-conservative society are the culprits behind women’s unequal status in the family in Saudi Arabia. The state, through its control of information and personal freedom, has handpicked and appointed the clergy and allowed its vision and perception of the ideal Saudi woman to set the norms and create a biased legal framework. The state identity for women citizens does not envision them as equal heads of their families, trusted to make the same decisions as men, or married to foreign husbands while maintaining their citizenship obligations and privileges. The problems witnessed by women citizens in accessing identification are merely manifestations of this forced state identity, whether in the Civil Status Law, the Passport Law, or any other state identification process. A public-led transformation of women’s identity as equal citizens with the same obligations and rights in the family as that of men is the only meaningful approach to solving this inherent legal discrimination.

Hala Aldosari is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.