(CNN) Mothers in Saudi Arabia can now retain custody of their children after divorce without filing lawsuits, according to a Saudi Information Ministry statement Monday, meaning the kingdom is breaking ranks with several other countries in the region that heavily favor male guardianship.
The move comes as part of a series of sweeping social and economic reforms known as Vision 2030. Initiated over the past two years, the reforms have been spearheaded by Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Previously, a Saudi woman was required to petition courts, sometimes for years, to win custody of children after a divorce. The Saudi Justice Ministry released a circular to the courts that specifies that, barring a dispute between the parents, a mother is required only to apply for custodianship. This represents a significant improvement in women's rights in the country, even though custodianship still goes to the father by default.
The new custody process sets the traditionally ultraconservative kingdom apart from several other countries in the region on issues of equal gender treatment in divorce. Places such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt -- influenced by traditional interpretations of Islamic law -- consider the father the child's natural guardian, and grant him complete physical custody after a child has reached a certain age.
"This is something that I've wanted every day. The progress that has happened at the Ministry of Justice when it comes to personal status issues, especially regarding women and children, has been amazing," said Saudi domestic-abuse activist Samira AlGhamdi, who said she has been working for better rights for divorced women for 17 years. "It used to be that a woman would spend years in court just so she could see her children," she added.
The move also allows divorced mothers to conduct their children's legal affairs and keep their passports, a significant step for a country where women still require a male guardian's consent to travel, divorce, get a job or have elective surgery. The circular stops short of allowing a woman to leave the country with her children without a judge's permission.
The announcement comes six months after the kingdom declared that women would be able to drive, the culmination of years of activism and appeals from inside and outside the Gulf nation.
Saudi Arabia, which adheres to some of the strictest interpretations of Sunni Islam in the world, has long been accused of formal legal discrimination against women.
The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum ranked the kingdom 138th out of 144 countries on gender parity, ahead of only Iran, Yemen and Syria in the Middle East.
"This move is very, very important because in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the region we have lots of problems when it comes to personal status laws and everything that has to do with marriage, what comes after marriage and during marriage," said Lebanese human-rights lawyer Manar Zaiter. "Custody issues are one of the region's biggest problems."