- Last week, The New York Times published a report on Bethany Vierra, a 31-year-old American woman who was trapped in Saudi Arabia after her ex-husband let her residency expire.
- While the Saudi government has intervened and granted Vierra residency, allowing her to travel freely, she still won’t be able to take her daughter with her on international trips, experts told INSIDER.
- That’s because Vierra’s ex remains his daughter’s “guardian,” giving him the power to bar the girl from leaving the country.
Although an American woman whose ex-husband was reportedly forcing her to stay in Saudi Arabia now has the power to leave, she would have to leave their 4-year-old daughter behind.
Last week, The New York Times published a report detailing Bethany Vierra’s struggle to visit family in the US with her daughter, Zaina, the product of a failed marriage to an unnamed Saudi man.
The 31-year-old Washington state woman had been unable to leave the country because her ex-husband let her residency expire, according to The Times.
While The Times reported Sunday that the Saudi government intervened after the report came out, and granted Vierra residency, allowing her to travel freely, she won’t be able to take her daughter with her on any international trips.
That’s because of a Saudi law that gives Zaina’s father the power to bar her from leaving the country.
Saudi Arabia’s so-called “guardianship” laws assign a male relative control over every woman. A girl’s father is her guardian until she marries, at which point guardianship transfers to her husband, according to Human Rights Watch. If a woman’s husband dies, guardianship will pass to a son or other close male relative.
Women’s lives in Saudi Arabia are governed by their guardians, who must give their approval if a woman wants to get a job, have certain medical procedures done, or travel internationally. There’s even an app that allows men to be alerted anytime one of their wards passes through an airport, as INSIDER’s Bill Bostock has reported.
Legal experts say there’s little hope her daughter could get another guardian
While women can sometimes petition to get a new guardian, these situations are usually narrowly tailored to women whose male guardian has grown too old for the responsibility, according to HRW.
Jeremy Morley, founder of an international family law practice in New York, told INSIDER it’s highly unlikely Vierra could get a new guardian for her daughter.
She would have to show a “heavy burden of proof” that her ex is mentally ill, a criminal, or not fulfilling his guardian responsibilities – and even then Zaina’s new guardian would just be another male member of her father’s line, Morley said.
Zaina’s dual citizenship won’t help her, either. Though the girl was born in Saudi Arabia, her mother’s American citizenship passed to her at birth. But the Saudi government doesn’t recognise dual citizenship, so she’ll get no special treatment if her mother leaves the country and and tries to take her with her, without the permission of the girl’s father.
Furthermore, custody of Zaina will transfer to her father when she turns 7, under Sharia law, according to HRW.
Robert D. Arenstein, a New York-based lawyer who has tried over 400 international child custody cases, called the policy “very chauvinistic.”
“Unless she can get out of Saudi Arabia in some way, which is not necessarily going to happen, I would tell her to try and stay with the child and get a lawyer that does Sharia law to help her out,” Arenstein told INSIDER.
Saudi Arabia has made it somewhat easier for women to petition for custody of their children in the last year, not requiring them to file lawsuits and go through the court system like in the past. But Vierra would still have to apply for custody of Zaina.
When couples divorce in the US, state law determines the process for who gets custody of the children. If it’s disputed, courts often decide based on the “best interests of the child.”
The US probably can’t help, either
Morley said Vierra can petition a court in her home state of Washington to take the custody case, but even then there’s “no chance whatsoever that the Saudi courts will pay attention to an American ruling.”
“She is in desperate trouble,” he said. “She can ask for political help. That is all I can see beyond begging for mercy from her husband. Make promises to him that she will treat him in a certain way, or give him something else that he wants.”
And if that fails, “she can possibly find a very dangerous way to be smuggled out of the country.”
But Vierra told The Times that she has no interest in leaving Saudi Arabia permanently.
“I was never trying to escape Saudi Arabia,” she told the paper. “I have dedicated my life’s work to this country and being a part of its growth, development and vision for its future.”
The State Department declined to weigh in on Vierra’s case to the Times, citing privacy rules, but the department’s deputy spokesman, Robert J. Palladino, did address the issue generally at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Palladino said that anytime an American travels overseas they’re “subject to the laws of the country in which they travel,” including Saudi Arabia where women require their guardian’s permission to leave the country.
“We routinely encourage American citizens to make sure – to read – what we publish and to understand the laws of the countries to which they’re visiting,” Palladino said.
He added: “We engage with the Saudi government and all nations on [women and girls rights’] issues. It’s something that we do routinely in our diplomacy. It’s something that we continue to stand up for and something that is part of what we as the diplomatic corps do globally.”
- Read more:
- An American woman trapped in Saudi Arabia has few options for escape because of divorce laws that give men near-complete control
- Saudi Arabia runs a huge, sinister online database of women that men use to track them and stop them from running away
- Saudi Arabian women can now drive – here are the biggest changes they have seen in just over a year
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