Written by Ben Hubbard
At first, Saudi Arabia was an adventure for Bethany Vierra.
An American from Washington state, she taught at a women’s university, started a company, married a Saudi businessman and gave birth to a curly-haired daughter, Zaina.
But since the marriage went sour and she sought a divorce, she has been trapped. Because of the kingdom’s so-called guardianship laws, which give men great power over women, she is unable to use her bank account, leave the country, travel with her daughter or seek legal help, according to her cousin, Nicole Carroll.
“She is completely stuck,” Carroll, 37, said by phone from Dublin, California. “She is out of options.”
Vierra, 31, is now divorced, but her ex-husband let her residency expire, meaning she has lost access to her bank account and cannot get authorization to leave the country, Carroll said. Their 4-year-old daughter cannot travel without her father’s permission, meaning that even if Vierra finds a way to leave the kingdom, her child may have to stay behind.
Carroll decided to publicize her cousin’s case because she believed the family had nowhere else to turn and hoped that speaking out would encourage someone to help her, while also shedding light on what she called “an unfair system.”
Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women drew renewed international scrutiny in January, when a Saudi teenager ran away from her vacationing family and barricaded herself in a hotel room in Thailand before being granted asylum in Canada.
Under the so-called guardianship system, Saudi women are given a legal status similar to that of minors. All must have a male “guardian” — usually a father or husband, but sometimes a son or uncle — whose permission they need to obtain passports, pursue certain medical procedures or travel. These rules extend to foreign women who marry Saudis, like Vierra, as well as their children.
Male guardians can grant or deny permission to travel through a government app, even registering to receive text messages when any woman over whom they have oversight passes through an airport.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day ruler, has loosened some restrictions on women, lifting a ban on driving by women and allowing them into sports stadiums. Last month, he named a princess, Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, as the new Saudi ambassador to Washington.
When asked on “60 Minutes” last year whether men and women were equal, Crown Prince Mohammed said: “Absolutely. We are all human beings, and there is no difference.” Asked about guardianship in another interview, he said he wanted to “figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”
But rights advocates say guardianship makes women and men profoundly unequal and leaves a woman with little recourse if she ends up with a controlling or abusive guardian.
“They are trying to put an image out there that they are giving more rights to women, but if they really want to do that, they need to get rid of guardianship,” Carroll said.
Vierra moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a women’s university while doing research for a graduate degree, Carroll said. Friends introduced her to a Saudi businessman who had been educated abroad and seemed supportive of her ambitions. They married in 2013, inviting friends to a destination wedding in Portugal.
“At the beginning, it seemed really great,” said Carroll, who was the maid of honor. “He was charming and loving and generous and kind. She felt like she had met somebody who was on the same page as her.”
The marriage produced the daughter, Zaina, but eventually grew rocky. Vierra’s husband often lost his temper, shouting and swearing at her in front of Zaina, Carroll said. Vierra asked for a divorce, which men in Saudi Arabia — but not women — can grant by merely speaking a few words. For more than a year, he took no action on her request.
Under Saudi law, which is based on Islamic Shariah, a woman can request a cancellation of the marriage contract if the man is not living up to his duties. Last year, Vierra filed a request with a Saudi court based on her husband’s emotional and verbal abuse. Her husband swore in court that she was lying and that he had divorced her more than six months earlier, an argument that the judge accepted, Carroll said.
Even after the divorce, her ex-husband remained the sponsor of Vierra’s residency, as well as the guardian of her and her daughter, Carroll said. In December, he refused to give them permission to travel, meaning that they missed Christmas with Vierra’s family.
Last month, he let Vierra’s residency expire, making her presence illegal in Saudi Arabia, Carroll said. Without valid residency, she cannot travel, go to the police or get access to her bank account, meaning that she cannot pay her business expenses or employees’ salaries.
Under a new Saudi law, women in her position can get residency for being the parent of a Saudi citizen. But only Vierra’s ex-husband can get the documents needed for her to obtain such a status, Carroll said, and he has refused to do so.
And while Zaina is a dual Saudi-American citizen, Saudi Arabia recognizes her only as a Saudi. This means that, since the child’s father is her guardian, even if Vierra can find a way to leave the kingdom, Zaina cannot go with her unless he grants permission.
Carroll shared Vierra’s story on the condition that her ex-husband’s name not be published; Carroll said she feared provoking his family and endangering her cousin. When contacted by The New York Times, Vierra confirmed the general outlines of her story but declined to comment further for fear of exacerbating her situation.
Her ex-husband did not respond to phone calls and messages seeking comment.
A State Department official declined to comment on Vierra’s case, citing privacy rules. But the consular information page for Saudi Arabia on the State Department’s website notes that even non-Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to leave the country and that the U.S. government “cannot obtain exit visas for the departure of minor children without their father/guardian’s permission.”
It also says that when foreigners divorce Saudis, “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.”
That leaves no clear exit for Vierra and her daughter, whose American relatives fear that the family will remain split up.
“She has no recourse,” Carroll said. “Everyone keeps asking: ‘What next? What next?’ But there is no what next.”