Remarkable that this appeared in Arab News. (Thanks to Ali Dashti for the link.)
For some time now, there has been a lot of talk, nationally and even internationally, about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Being a person who has broached the topic in more than one article, it is not unusual for me to be asked: “What are the rights you think women should have?” Westerners often make the assumption that we are totally deprived of all rights. Saudis, mostly conservatives terrified of any change, think that Saudi women enjoy all the rights they are entitled to by Islamic law. Both groups, of course, are wrong.
My article today is not comprehensive on the situation from all angles. Rather, it is a glimpse into the life of one Saudi woman. Hopefully, by the end of the article, my readers will have some idea about the kind of rights women are deprived of on a daily basis in Saudi Arabia. Before I begin, I would like to clarify that this story only sheds light on the problem from one perspective: That of a divorced woman, raising children alone in Saudi Arabia.
Mona is a divorcee in her late 30s with three children: Two daughters and a son. Her ex-husband, being resentful of her decision to leave him, decided to make Mona’s life miserable in every way possible. For the first two years after their divorce, true to his words, he took away her children and deprived her of visitation rights. Under Islamic law, the mother is entitled to keep the children until they are seven. After that, a girl must go to live with her father and a boy is asked where he would like to live. Mona’s children were all taken from her, regardless.
After months of Mona’s family pleading with the ex-husband with no result, Mona reluctantly decided to see a lawyer. The lawyer explained that since all the parties involved were living in the same city, then by law Mona was entitled to see her children every weekend. Her lawyer contacted the ex-husband, who promised he would comply, but he did not. After weeks with no result, Mona’s lawyer advised her that the only way to force compliance was to send policemen to bring the children out from the ex-husband’s residence. The lawyer explained that even if her ex-husband was depriving her of visitation rights, she still did not have a claim to custody. All she can do was send the police in every weekend.
Being an educated and affectionate woman, Mona decided not to put her children through that sort of psychological trauma and helplessly watch as her ex-husband tore down all that she had been building in the children. First, he took the children out of their private schools and placed them in public schools. Being a single man, the responsibility of three children weighed heavily on him so he hired a housemaid to stay with them. The children were practically being raised by a maid, but Mona could do nothing about it. When her ex-husband traveled, which he frequently did, he left the children with his aged parents or with any of their willing aunts. Mona’s heart broke to see the children being shifted from one house to another, not unlike orphans, while she was there, just dying to see them. She spoke to other lawyers, explained the situation, and every one of them said the same thing: Custody is his right despite all that he is doing.
After two years, Mona’s ex-husband decided to remarry. Fortunately for her, the children became a burden he no longer wanted to bear so he decided that they should live with their mother. Mona was ecstatic, but she soon realized that her ex-husband would always hold some power over all of them. First, he refused to pay any child support. The lawyers told Mona that there was nothing any judge would do except verbally reprimand her ex-husband. No law allows money to be cut from his salary without his consent for child support and no law can imprison him for child abandonment.
As a single mother, in a country where women’s salaries are usually between SR1,500-SR7,000, it has been very difficult for Mona to raise her children the way she wants, but she has done her best. She has scraped and saved to provide them with a good education. Of course, every school she has enrolled the children in has asked for their legal guardian’s original family card, which her husband has carelessly refused to give. In the end Mona has bribed private school officials to accept them.
Having three children, it became difficult for her to stay at her family”s already full house so she decided to rent a tiny apartment nearby for her children. No landlord would accept them without a male sponsor. With her father deceased, Nora pleaded with her brother to use his name and paid one year in advance to make all parties feel safer.
Unable to drive, she had to hire a driver. The cab she used to take to work every day, would no longer suffice for three different locations every morning and noon. As a woman, however, she could not finish her papers alone. All government institutions are run by men. So she was forced to hire a man and give him legal authorization to represent her; i.e. more expenses on an already stretched budget. Then there was the ironic request to prove her need for “” and ability to pay “” a driver. She had to provide papers proving employment and the salary she earned. I say ironic because, in a country where no woman can drive, it is like asking half the population why they need to get out of the house. More humiliating, then, was the fact that she was forced to send a copy of her divorce papers to complete strangers to decide if she was entitled to a driver.
Read it all.