Bethany Vierra did not think she was asking for much.
First, she wanted a divorce from a husband she described as abusive. Then she wanted to secure custody of her 4-year-old daughter, Zeina. Then she wanted a court order to receive child support from her ex-husband, a businessman.
But as an American woman living in Saudi Arabia, Ms Vierra has navigated a punishing legal maze ever since she first asked her Saudi ex-husband for a divorce in 2017, then opened custody proceedings in November.
Though she succeeded with the divorce, her custody battle appeared to reach a dead end on Sunday, when a Saudi judge awarded custody of Zeina to her father’s mother, who lives with him, despite video evidence Ms Vierra submitted to the court that she said showed her ex-husband doing drugs and verbally abusing her in front of their daughter.
“It’s like 10,000 times worse here because so much is at risk for women when they go to court,” Ms Vierra said, near tears, in an interview on Sunday. “I genuinely thought that there would still be justice served here, and I kind of put everything on that.”
Under Saudi law, which is based on Islamic law, or sharia, mothers generally retain day-to-day custody of sons until they turn 9, and daughters until they turn 7, while fathers remain their legal guardians. The kingdom announced last year that Saudi mothers could keep custody of children after a divorce without having to file a lawsuit, as they had previously had to do, unless the father was contesting custody.
But Saudi courts prioritise ensuring that children are raised in accordance with Islam. According to court documents, the judge accepted Ms Vierra’s ex-husband’s arguments that she was unfit to raise Zeina because she was a Westerner, and furthermore, because she ran her own business, a yoga studio, leaving her with little time to devote to her child.
“Since the mother is new to Islam and a foreigner in this country and embraces customs and traditions in the way she was raised,” the judge wrote in his ruling, “we must avoid exposing Zeina to these traditions.”
The status of women in the deeply conservative, male-dominated kingdom is in flux. New reforms put in place by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have allowed women to drive and curbed the power of religious enforcers who police how women dress and act in public.
The crown prince, in an interview with 60 Minutes last year, was asked if women and men were equal and responded: “Absolutely. We are all human beings and there is no difference.”
But the changes have not touched the most fundamental restriction on Saudi women, the guardianship system that gives men control over many critical parts of the lives of female relatives and wives, requiring them to get a male guardian’s permission to travel, obtain a passport or undergo certain medical procedures.
A Saudi newspaper reported last week that the government was considering allowing women over 18 to travel without a guardian’s permission. That would be a major adjustment to the system, which has drawn international condemnation amid a string of high-profile cases in which young Saudi women have run away to other countries against their families’ will.
The guardianship system’s rules extend to women who marry Saudis, like Ms Vierra, and their children, including dual citizens like Zeina. Even after they divorced last year, Ms Vierra’s ex-husband, whom she married in 2013, remains her guardian and Zeina’s.
Wielding his guardianship powers, he prevented her from going home to see her family at Christmas and let her legal residency expire, which left her stuck, unable to access her bank account or leave the country.
Ms Vierra spoke to The New York Times on the condition that her ex-husband not be named because she feared provoking him further. He did not respond to efforts to contact him for comment on Sunday.
Saudi authorities granted Ms Vierra residency in March after The Times wrote about her situation. At that point, she and her ex-husband had agreed that Zeina would live with her, with weekly visitations for him. But matters soon deteriorated, and her ex-husband began pursuing full custody in court.
He told the court that Ms Vierra, who is from Washington state but moved to the kingdom in 2011 to teach at a women’s university, did not speak Arabic well, and that she was an atheist.
He also submitted photos of her in a bikini, in yoga pants and with her hair uncovered — evidence of suspect or outright forbidden dress in a country that requires women to wear loose abayas in public.
The court accepted his testimony at face value, she said, while hers was legally worthless unless she could bring in male witnesses to back her up. She tried to counter with videos of him that she said showed him rolling a joint to smoke hashish, talking on the phone about his marijuana use and screaming at Ms Vierra, all with Zeina in the room.
Though he acknowledged his drug use, he accused her in court of giving him the drugs and of forcing him to say he was an atheist, both of which Ms Vierra denies.
“It’s videos versus male witnesses,” Ms Vierra said. “They wouldn’t in some cases even look at the evidence that I had. It was just completely disregarded because he ‘swore to God.’ It’s all been infuriating.”
In the end, the judge found both parents unfit to raise Zeina, awarding custody instead to Ms Vierra’s former mother-in-law. But Ms Vierra did not find this comforting; she said her ex-husband’s sister had testified that their mother had hit them and emotionally abused them as children.
Ms Vierra said Zeina was frightened and confused by the decision, which she had promised her daughter she would fight, but in truth had no idea how to undo.
She had committed to a life in Saudi Arabia so she could be with her daughter and Zeina could know her Saudi relatives, she said, and had also been proud to obtain a license to open her yoga studio, the first of its kind in the country.
Now, she said, she felt everything she had done in good faith was being used against her.
“This is not just my story — there’s much worse,” she said, describing women she said she had met who had gone through similarly gruelling custody battles in Saudi Arabia. “It’s hard to believe stuff like this can happen.”
The New York Times