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Last week, news that an unnamed man in Saudi Arabia reportedly divorced his wife for breaking the country's driving ban for women sparked international attention and debate. This blog will consider the legality of the husband's religious divorce as if it occurred within Ontario.

Saudi Arabia has a de facto ban on women drivers as the government does not issue driver licenses to women. The wife, inspired by recent women's rights campaigns related to the ban, wanted to surprise her husband by texting him a video clip of herself driving in a public place. Allegedly, the unnamed man was so enraged that he immediately filed for divorce on the grounds that she not only 'broke the law,' but also 'social traditions and norms.' He then sent her to live with her family.

In Saudi Arabia, divorce is governed by Islamic religious law, known as Sharia law. Under the country's strict interpretation of Sharia law, when a man decides that he wishes to divorce his wife and says 'I divorce you' to her three times, the couple is effectively divorced. He can then go to court to obtain documentation of his decision to divorce.

While a religious marriage under Sharia law can be a legally recognized marriage in Ontario, obtaining a Sharia divorce does not necessarily mean that a couple is divorced within the eyes of Canadian law. In Canada, the Divorce Act overrules religious laws governing the matter. Thus, if this situation occurred in Ontario, the man would not be granted a legal divorce immediately merely because his wife broke the law.

Divorce in Canada requires a breakdown of marriage. The Divorce Act only recognizes three reasons for marriage breakdown that constitute grounds for divorce:

  1. The spouses have separated and have lived separate and apart for at least a year;
  2. One spouse has committed adultery; or
  3. One spouse has been mentally or physically abusive to the other and they can no longer live together.

Considering the available facts, the husband would apply for divorce under Divorce Act s. 8(2)(a) for having lived separate and apart from his wife with the intention to separate. While parties do not need to live separate and apart for a full year before applying for divorce, an Ontario court will not grant one if there is a possibility of reconciliation. In the case at hand, it is most likely that the acts of obtaining a religious divorce and sending his wife away demonstrate an irreconcilable intention to separate on the husband's part.

In slightly different circumstances, it might be possible that the husband could forgive his wife in the future. As the husband reportedly filed for divorce 'immediately' because he was 'enraged,' a judge may find that his desire for divorce was only temporary and spurred by sudden outrage. If this were the case, the court could stay the proceeding until it is clear that his intention to divorce is certain and reconciliation is no longer possible. However, given the gravity of a religious divorce, this is an unlikely alternative on the facts.

Thus, despite the fact that the husband's religious divorce would not constitute a legal divorce in Ontario, he may still be granted a legal divorce if the situation fulfills the Divorce Act's requirements. He would have to maintain his intention to separate while living separately from his wife for a year and satisfy the court that reconciliation is impossible.