The Saudi women banned from marrying because father won't let them

Many Saudi men defy Sharia and treat women as property, refusing to let them marry and threatening to kill their daughters if they seek help outside the family.

A Saudi couple buy a wedding dress at a shop in Riyadh. Many Saudi women complain that their fathers refuse to let them marry anyone.
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RIYADH // Amal Saleh would like to marry and have a family, but she needs her father's permission. And he won't give it.

A university professor in her mid-thirties, Amal has had numerous suitors asking for her hand, but her father always refuses. "They are not rich, or he doesn't like their fathers or they are not from the same social group," she says.

Work colleagues who proposed were turned away because they were not from the same tribe.

Her brothers support her father, she says, because they fear "that if I had a partner he would share in my money".

For her male relatives, Amal says, "I am like a horse. They don't treat me as a human being. They treat me as if I belong to them and they should decide what to do with this 'thing'."

The National is not publishing Amal's real name because her father threatened to kill her if she sought help outside the family.

Her situation is not unique, according to Saudi human rights activists, journalists and scores of women who have gone public through the courts and the media. Some fathers refuse to let their daughters marry at all, others insist they can marry only a cousin. The National Society for Human Rights recently recorded more than 85 cases of women challenging their fathers in court in the past five years, almost four out of 10 in Riyadh.

The extent of the problem also became evident in the hundreds of women who responded to a Facebook group named "Enough Adhl!" It was created last fall by Amal in order to let women know they are not alone and encourage them to demand their rights. Adhl means the suppression of a woman's rights by her legal guardian.

"If we complain against our fathers, the first thing that will happen is they will imprison us, not let us go to our occupation, they may hit us," Amal said. Indeed, the Saudi press has reported instances of women who defied their fathers being beaten, locked in their rooms for weeks, forced to stop working and having their paycheques confiscated.

The desperation of such women is all the more intense because it usually remains hidden within the family. Women's rights activist Wajeha Al Huwaider said: "Their biological clock is ticking and they start thinking about this [but] they keep silent [because they believe] it's something we shouldn't mention."

Hussein Nasser al Sharif, manager of the Jeddah branch of the National Society for Human Rights, said that while some fathers do not want their daughter to marry outside their own tribe, in most cases money is the underlying issue.

Sometimes, fathers do not want to forego their daughters' income, Mr al Sharif said. In other cases, fathers and their sons fear that a married daughter, with her husband's help, will make more forceful demands for her full share of inheritance.

Ms al Huwaider agreed that "more than anything else it's all about money" and predicted that the problem will grow because more women are working and bringing income to the family. "If the father and brothers are greedy," she said, "this is the problem the women will face."

The irony here is that Islamic law, or sharia - the basis for all laws in the kingdom - prohibits such paternal behaviour, according to Mr Al Sharif and other experts.

Sharia stipulates that a woman's earned salary is her own money and should not be taken by anyone, even her husband. It also stipulates that a woman can marry whomever she wants, provided he is morally good and a devout Muslim.

In 2005, the kingdom's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Asheikh reminded Saudi men of these strictures when he publicly denounced adhl as a severe injustice that merits imprisonment. "Forcing a woman to marry someone she does not want and preventing her from wedding that whom she chooses … is not permissible" under Islamic law, he said.

But his words have fallen on deaf ears and sharia is still widely trumped by long-held Saudi cultural and tribal norms, which view woman essentially as property.

"Fathers used to think that his daughter is part of himself and they thought, 'we know better than you know so we have to decide.' So this idea is still in some mens' minds," Mr al Sharif said.

This idea is reinforced by Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, which deprives women of their personal independence for virtually their whole life. Under this system, a report in 2008 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch said, Saudi women are "unable to make basic decisions without a male guardian's consent, including decisions about marriage, education, employment, certain types of health care, or travel."

The Saudi government pledged before the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2009 that it would abolish the guardianship system, but it has not acted on that promise.

When arbitration between father and daughter fails, Mr al Sharif said, women are encouraged to pursue their rights in court. But this is a perilous course because most judges share the same cultural biases as the women's fathers. Although judges are supposed to rule according to sharia, numerous cases have come to light where they did not.

Worst of all, a daughter who challenges her father in court risks being counter-sued by her father for alleged uqouq, or disobedience.

That is what happened to Samar Badawi, a divorced mother of one in her early 30s. In April last year, a judge in Jeddah sent her to prison after her father, who had physically abused her and refused to let her remarry, complained that she had disobeyed him by leaving home for a shelter for battered women.

Ms Badawi was only freed in October after a concerted public campaign by rights activists.

Many women never go to court because of the widespread belief that they must obey their parents in all matters, and that disagreeing with them is wrong, Amal said. "Most girls think they have to obey their parents, they think telling them about a partner they want is disobedience. This is the problem. So they stay silent until they become more than 35 years old."

Amal said that she had "passed through very bad psychological problems" because of her own situation, confiding that she had several times contemplated suicide but ultimately decided that it "is not a solution."

Attempts to reach her again in recent days were unsuccessful, with email messages and calls to her mobile phone going unanswered. A friend reported that Amal's family has barred her from communicating outside the family.

"Before Islam, they had this practice of killing a girl when she is just a baby [because] they were ashamed of her as they wanted a boy," Amal had said in the interview. "Now I'm saying that history is being repeated. They kill us when we have emotions and can understand and are aware of our rights. Maybe if they killed me as a child it would be better than now."