Who is Bethany Vierra? Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system has left US teacher trapped overseas


A Washington state teacher is trapped in Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom’s controversial guardianship system, which gives men considerable legal power over women.

According to The New York Times, Bethany Vierra, 31, moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a university and two years later married an “ambitious” and “charming” Saudi businessman. Four years ago, they welcomed a girl, Zaina.

Under Saudi law, a woman can apply for the annulment of the marriage if the man “does not perform his duties.” So when her marriage fell apart, Vierra filed for divorce, citing emotional and verbal abuse.

Although they are now officially divorced, Vierra’s ex-husband still has near-total control over his life due to the system, which requires basic activities like travel, marriage, and employment to be approved by a male parent, known as a guardian. Last month, Vierra’s husband allowed her residence to expire, which means she can’t apply for the necessary documents to travel or access her bank account. Essentially, she cannot leave Saudi Arabia without her permission.

Even though Virra could find a way to escape, her daughter Zaina is a Saudi citizen, so they couldn’t leave together unless her ex-husband gave her permission.

“She’s completely stuck,” her cousin Nicole Carroll told the Times. “She has no more options.”

Saudi Arabia’s tradition of male guardianship is based on a rigid and traditional view of the sexes. Here’s what you need to know about the system.

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How does the system work?

Under the so-called guardianship system, all Saudi women must have a male “guardian” – a father, uncle, husband, brother or son – whom they need to obtain passports, undergo certain medical procedures, enrolling in school and opening a savings account, among other basic needs.

“The Saudi state essentially treats women as permanent legal minors”, Human Rights Watch Explain.

According to New York Times, men can even follow the journey of a Saudi woman via an app, and register to receive an SMS when they pass through an airport.

“It’s a long fight and a long road to serious equality,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics. newspaper in June.

What did the Saudi leaders say about it?

In June, Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers was lifted, and seven months later women attended a football match at a public stadium for the first time. But when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked about the guardianship in a recent interview with Atlantic, he said he wanted “to find a way to deal with this that doesn’t hurt families and doesn’t hurt culture.”

Reuters reports that Saudi public prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb said his office “will spare no effort to protect individuals, whether women, children or parents, from the unfair treatment of those who abuse supervisory powers, ”according to the English-language daily Saudi Gazette.

Saud al-Mojeb added that his office received only a small number of complaints about the guardianship, but did not provide further details, according to the outlet.

Is something being done to change it?

According to The New York Times, Saudi Arabia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, including Guardianship System, in 2000. But many Saudi women are still unable to take them. even important decisions in their lives. In recent years, a growing protest movement using the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian has sought to end the system.

In 2016, thousands of Saudis signed a petition calling on the government to abolish the tradition. “Women should be treated as full citizens,” activist Aziza Al-Yousef said The Guardian. “It’s not just a woman’s problem, it puts pressure on normal men as well… it’s not just a woman’s problem.”

In February 2018, United Nations experts expressed concern that “the absence of the adoption of a specific law prohibiting discrimination against women and the absence of a legal definition of discrimination against women in accordance with the Convention, which, in a countries with strong customs and traditions, was a matter of concern. The ‘mahram’, or male guardianship system, was the main obstacle to women’s participation in society and the economy, experts noted and questioned concrete steps taken to end this system. ”

Human Rights Watch, which published a shocking report on the system in 2016, has a dedicated page on their website for the question, calling on Saudi officials to “take this opportunity to end all government-imposed male guardianship clearance requirements and enact anti-discrimination legislation that would prohibit anyone from requiring women to obtain the authorization of a tutor ”.

HRW too encourage people to tweet to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to express their concern.

In February 2019, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia has started to investigate how the male guardianship system is being abused.

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What will happen to Virra?

“She has no recourse,” Carroll said of her cousin. “Everyone keeps asking, ‘So what? After that ?’ But there is no continuation.

State Department consular information page notes that non-Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to leave the country and “if a foreigner and a Saudi living in Saudi Arabia divorce, Saudi courts rarely allow the foreign parent to leave the country with the children born during marriage. “

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