Last summer, months prior to the Jamal Khashoggi killing which would soon change everything, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman was widely hailed as a “reformer” for the kingdom’s “entering the 21st century” through legal reversals which would allow women to drive and the opening of co-ed movie theaters, among other things. But after the journalist’s gruesome murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2nd, western media perhaps regained its skepticism once again.
And now one of the more notoriously backwards and oppressive Saudi policies has taken center stage after an American woman and her 4-year daughter old have become trapped inside the country, thanks to restrictive laws which give her ex-husband total power over her ability to travel. The nightmare scenario has prevented US citizen Bethany Vierra from leaving the country due to the kingdom’s so-called guardianship laws, which allow male guardians — especially husbands — power to dictate travel, bank account usage, or even access to legal counsel for women.
Vierra, originally from Washington state, married a Saudi man in 2013 while teaching at a women’s university in the kingdom, but after he became abusive and violent-tempered to her and their child, she sought divorce. Even after her husband agreed to the divorce last year, however, he’s still been granted the power to maintain parent-like control over her, leaving her trapped in a country and society she wanted to flee.
Her cousin told The New York Times this week “she is completely stuck, she is out of options,” and said the family wanted to go public with Vierra’s plight after they had no recourse but to appeal to international media.
This after last month a Saudi teenager fled to Thailand, later barricading herself in an airport hotel room in order to evade Saudi demands that she be apprehended and extradited. The 18-year old girl, Rahaf al-Qunun, was later granted asylum by Canada for fear that her family would harm or even kill her upon return.
In Vierra’s case her ex-husband was able to legally forbid her from traveling last Christmas when she sought return to her family’s home in Washington state. Worse, he let her residency expire, which gave her illegal alien status in the Saudi government’s eyes. This further means, as her cousin explained to the Times, she has no bank account access or other financial or legal recourse.
The Times explained the further difficulty concerning the legal status of the daughter as well, who possesses dual Saudi and American citizenship:
While there is a new Saudi law that would allow her to get residency as the parent of a Saudi citizen, only her husband has the power to get the documents needed to apply for that status, and Carroll [Vierra’s cousin] told The Times he has refused to do so.
There’s also the issue of her daughter Zaina’s dual Saudi Arabian-American citizenship. Because Saudi Arabia only recognizes her as Saudi, she would need to get her father’s permission to leave the country. That means that even if her mother finds a way to leave, Zaina will likely have to stay behind, Carroll said.
It was recently revealed that a Saudi government app called Absher is able to give male guardians complete surveillance power over a female’s whereabouts, most especially permission-granting status to male family members over legal matters such as obtaining a passport.
The Absher system gives men access to a massive database of Saudi women and means to bar them from traveling, including text alerts should they try to use any travel documents without permission at an airport or border crossing.
In Vierra’s case, the situation looks incredibly bleak and dire considering she no longer even has legal status in the country, and is now likely under some form of house arrest imposed by her ex-husband and his family.
Indeed, her family requested that the New York Times refrain from publishing the ex-husband’s identity for fear they would lash out at her while she remains stuck in the country, making her plight worse.