By Bethany Alhaidari
In 2011, while working in Tunisia, my life completely changed. I witnessed the start of the Arab Spring and fall of Tunisia’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, due to a popular uprising against injustice. As an American citizen, it was the first time I truly understood how vital freedom, human rights, dignity, and democratic principles were.
I switched my life path and entered academia, conducting graduate human rights and socio-legal research on one of the world’s most notorious human rights violators and dictatorships: Saudi Arabia. I embarked on a journey to research, write, learn, and experience. Along the way, I met some of the most inspiring Saudi human rights defenders, several of whom ended up in jail. I married a Saudi activist who was supportive of my work at the time, gave birth to my beautiful daughter Zaina, and started a business.
While my journey started with the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, I eventually experienced firsthand the exact human rights violations I was researching.
My marriage took a turn for the worse. Gathering the courage to seek freedom from an abusive relationship introduced the harsh realities of male guardianship, the kafala system, and status of women under the country’s law. Being female and foreign, Saudi Arabia’s systems placed a heavy burden on me — a weight I wasn’t prepared to face in Saudi Arabian courts.
In a society where women are bound by the decisions of their male guardians and where a woman’s word is not equal to a man’s under the law, my voice was suddenly silenced, and the interests of my daughter were completely ignored. Basic freedoms I had once taken for granted — using my bank account or accessing money, legal representation, seeking medical care, traveling without risking deportation, and running my business — were stripped away. In their child custody assessments, the Saudi court viewed my culture and traditions as more problematic than abuse and neglect. My attempts to seek safety were met with injustice, abuse, and humiliation; I was ultimately forced to go back into the arms of my abuser.
The reality is that many women, including foreigners like me, still grapple with the chains of the kafala and male guardianship systems. Women are subjected to discrimination, it increases if they are not being a Saudi citizen and especially from a developing country. More rights are stripped away for not supporting the government, or converting to the regime’s highly politicized interpretation of Islam.
On Dec. 15, 2019, after two years of entrapment, wrongful detention, a 10-year travel ban, criminal charges on false allegations, my parental rights being taken away and then being forced to degradingly return to my abuser, my daughter and I managed to escape Saudi Arabia. I held my breath in anticipation on our journey from Riyadh to Seattle. I watched the clouds clear as our flight was landing to reveal the Space Needle, an icon of the city where I was born and now a symbol of my freedom and dignity. After years of being terrified, deprived of dignity and protection, we were finally safe.
There was one looming threat: a Saudi court order for our return to Riyadh 28 days after I landed. A Washington State superior court evaluated our case and took jurisdiction on human rights grounds. That ruling has allowed us to remain in the United States for the past four years.
The world is under the false impression that Saudi Arabia has improved and reformed its abhorrent human rights record. This is primarily due to billion-dollar investments by the Saudi regime into top public relations and lobbying firms in the West, while heavily whitewashing to distract from their human rights violations. This misinformation has cost me tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours in courtrooms trying to dispel over the years, and threatens my daughter’s security and safety.
Now, everything is on the line again. The ruling that allows my daughter to remain in the United States has been appealed.
On Oct. 24, my legal team at Perkins Coie will stand in front of a three-judge appellate panel and again plead for our lives. If I lose, my daughter will be forced to return to Saudi Arabia. My daughter would not be able to return to the US without her father’s permission until she is at least 21. I would have no legal recourse or right to see her in Saudi Arabia.
I could not follow her without risking my life. In March 2021, I was accused of being a spy in a video produced by Saudi media outlets, a crime that has historically resulted in punishment by public beheading. These allegations led to threats against my colleagues and friends in Saudi Arabia, and to Saudi lawyers being forced to rescind their representation of me.
I gave up everything to save and protect my daughter and myself in 2019. It is difficult to face the current reality; to think that such an injustice could ever occur, especially in my home state of Washington.
What we need now is a genuine commitment from global leaders, legislators, and human rights organizations to advocate for the rights of women and children in Saudi Arabia. We must ensure that no mother has to face the heart-wrenching decision of leaving their child behind, and no child is deprived of the love and care they rightfully deserve. This will not be possible until the male guardianship system and the kafala systems are abolished. Countless women and children remain trapped by these systems. I’m urging world leaders to recognize and address the discrepancies between rhetoric and reality when it comes to human rights in Saudi Arabia.
In my heart, I remain hopeful for a just outcome in our case, where truth prevails, and the complex contradictions and violations in the Saudi Arabian legal system will be clear. I refuse to believe that we could be returned to a legal nightmare where we are treated as little more than the property of a man.
My daughter is currently free and safe in the only home she knows with the only caretaker she knows. She can grow up to participate in her government. She can be a judge or a senator. She can choose who she wants to marry. She can choose her religion. She can be a human rights activist, criticize her government, or embrace being queer without having to risk her life.
All of this could be taken away in Washington state on Oct. 24 if she is forced to return to Saudi Arabia. There isn’t a way to prepare when so much is on the line. Regardless of the outcome, I will continue to fight for my daughter’s freedom and basic rights and for every mother who wishes for nothing more than a safe, free, and loving environment for their child.
Bethany Alhaidari is a senior fellow at the Human Rights Foundation