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- Bethany Vierra, a 31-year-old woman from the US, has been trapped in Saudi Arabia with her 4-year-old daughter due to strict guardianship laws in the country, according to The New York Times.
- Vierra divorced her husband, a Saudi businessman, a year ago, but he won’t let her leave the country or become a legal resident – and as her ex-husband, he has the legal right to do so.
- She is now an illegal alien in the country and unable to access her bank account. If she does find a way to escape, her daughter may have to remain in the kingdom.
- Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, every women must have a male guardian who decides all of their critical decisions, from obtaining a passport to travel.
- Divorce proceedings are extremely difficult for women in Saudi Arabia, with men heavily favored and women needing their ex-husband’s permission to leave the country. Despite being an American citizen, Vierra must still abide by these laws.
The story of an American woman and her 4-year-old daughter reportedly trapped in Saudi Arabia after her marriage dissolved has prompted outrage – and reignited questions about the country’s strict divorce laws.
A story published in The New York Times on Tuesday detailed the nightmare situation facing 31-year-old Bethany Vierra. Vierra’s cousin, Nicole Carroll, told The Times that her cousin moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a women’s university. While there, she fell in love with a Saudi businessman who seemed supportive of her ambitions. Two years later, they married at a destination wedding in Portugal and later welcomed a daughter, Zaina.
“At the beginning, it was really great,” Carroll told the Times about the husband, whose name wasn’t published out of fear of provoking his family. “He was charming and loving and generous and kind. She felt like she had met somebody who was on the same page as her.”
But, according to Carroll, the relationship quickly turned sour: Vierra’s husband reportedly swore in front of their daughter and often lost his temper, prompting Vierra to ask for a divorce.
In Saudi Arabia, which abides by Islamic Sharia law, men can grant a divorce simply by speaking a few words. For women, however, the situation is much more complicated.
Guardianship laws sharply curb women’s options
Under Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship system, every woman must have a male guardian – whether that be a father, brother, or husband – who has authority over women’s movements and freedoms. In the case that the original male guardian passes away or a couple gets divorced, a brother, or even son, can take on the role.
When Vierra initially filed for the divorce, her husband refused to do so for more than a year, according to The Times. But, because Saudi law does permit women to request a cancellation of the marriage contract if the man doesn’t live up to his duties, she reportedly petitioned a court to void the contract due to his emotional and verbal abuse. He accused her of lying and said he had divorced her months prior, effectively ending the marriage.
Yet guardianship laws dictate that Vierra’s husband remains the sole guardian over her and her daughter. Despite being an American citizen, she isn’t allowed to leave the country or seek legal help. After he let her residency expire last month, Vierra became an illegal alien in Saudi Arabia and can’t access her bank account, according to The Times. Even if Vierra could find a way to escape, her daughter may have to remain in the kingdom.
A report from Muslim equality group Musawah presented at the 2018 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) explained how guardianship hinders womens’ movements. “Restrictions to women’s freedom of movement apply both to traveling abroad as well as movement within the country. …Women cannot apply for a passport or travel outside the country without her guardian’s approval,” explained the report.
“It’s a long struggle, and a long road to serious equality,” Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics, told The Times in an article published in June 2018.
Sharia law plays a big part in divorce in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of Muslim Sharia law as state law results in men being heavily favored in divorce proceedings. In the worst-case scenario, American women like Vierra can find themselves deprived of any visitation rights with their dual-national children, according to an anonymous brochure on Saudi divorces distributed by the consular bureau of the State Department in the mid-1990s.
“If a foreigner and a Saudi living in Saudi Arabia divorce, Saudi courts rarely grant permission for the foreign parent to leave the country with the children born during the marriage, even if he or she has been granted physical custody,” according to the consular information page for Saudi Arabia on the State Department’s website.
Saudi Arabia’s Nationality Act, which dictates that women cannot pass their nationality onto their children, makes it doubly difficult for women who are mothers to leave.
The consular information page added that non-Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to leave and the US government doesn’t have the authority to acquire exit visas for children without the father’s permission.
While a new Saudi law would allow Vierra to obtain residency, because she is the parent of a Saudi citizen, only her ex-husband has the authority to apply for that status – which he has refused to do, Carroll told The Times.
“She is completely stuck,” Carroll said. “She is out of options.”
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