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Once bitten, twice shy
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 23 - 05 - 2013

Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — Um Essam is a Saudi woman from the south of the Kingdom. She was married when she was very young and soon became pregnant. After two years she had a son and when she was pregnant with her second child, a daughter, her husband abandoned her. She had to face her destiny alone. She was the victim of an underage marriage and determined not to subject her daughter to the same experience.
Telling her story to Dammam-based Alsharq newspaper on Wednesday, she said after her husband had abandoned her she worked as a female guard in a kindergarten with a monthly salary of SR500, which she spent on feeding her two children. She then worked as a janitor in a government school on a monthly salary of SR800. She remained in the school for 11 years. During this time her estranged husband never asked about her or his two children.
Um Essam said five years after her husband deserting her, she decided to sue her estranged husband in a court in the southern region, asking for a formal divorce and alimony. She said the judge divorced her and asked the husband to pay her alimony for five years. In his ruling, the judge also said custody over the children will be the right of the husband when they are eight.
She said her husband asked her to waive her right to the alimony and he would drop his claim for custody. “Being keen to have my children with me, I readily agreed and wrote an official document rescinding my rights, but my ex-husband went back on his promise and insisted on having custody over the children.”
Um Essam said she moved to a new house but continued to work for the school in order to be able to sustain her children. She said one day her mother called her while she was at the school and told her that her ex had found out her new address, went to the house, took his two children and traveled to his hometown.
“I became mad and immediately traveled to his hometown. With the help of the police I was able to regain my children. The police warned him not to take the children unless he had a court ruling.”
Um Essam said her husband obtained a court ruling giving him custody over his children and complained to the police that she kidnapped his children and ran away.
“I took my children to a new town where we are hiding now. I spent my entire youth looking after the children. I cleaned the school in order to be able to feed my children. How can my ex-husband take my children to whom I dedicated all my time, income and years?”
Um Essam said even after 14 years of misery and hardship, she was still young and in her early 30s but she could not remarry for fear of losing her children.
She said her ex got married again and had children with his new wife. She said he is after her children because her daughter is 13 now.
“My husband wants to give away my daughter to a man in marriage at this young age. I will never allow this. I will not allow my daughter to go through what I did. She must complete her education first and then marry a suitable man of her choice,” she said.
Commenting on Um Essam's story, human rights activist Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen said there was clear injustice done to the woman by her ex-husband. “The Muslim scholars are unanimous that if the husband does not pay for the living costs of his children he will lose custody of them,” she said.
Al-Abideen questioned how the judge would give the husband custody over his children after he learned that the man did not spend any money on them before.
“This woman should not be afraid or run away. Legally she has every right to keep her children with her,” she said.
Al-Abideen strongly criticized the rules and regulations recently issued by the Justice Ministry to organize underage marriage. “The ministry fixed 16 as the minimum marriage age for girls when the age of maturity in the Kingdom is 18,” she said.
She also objected to giving the father the right to marry a daughter under 16 if he shows the court a medical report signed by a female gynecologist, psychiatrist and social worker that his daughter, though not yet 16, is physically, mentally and psychological fit for marriage.
“The father may bring a forged report,” she warned.
Al-Abideen also rejected the exemptions given to the father to marry off his underage daughter if he is too old, there is no one else to look after her and he has fears about her future after him. She criticized the ministry's rules and regulations for not clearly stipulating the right of the girl to complete her education after marriage. “This is an outright breach of the women's right to education,” she said.
Amir Fallatah, a lawyer, said Um Essam's story could be considered a public opinion case because there are so many similar cases in society. He asked her to appeal the verdict to a higher court and not continuing hiding. “Things will complicate further for her when the children grow up,” he warned.
Fallatah doubted that the woman had shown the judge the agreement between her and her ex regarding waiving her alimony claim in exchange for the latter dropping his custody claim. “The woman has no right to relinquish her claim to alimony because this is the right of the children,” he said.
Dr. Jabran Yahya, a psychiatrist, warned against marrying off girls before they are 18. “Underage marriage will cause a number of psychological, social and family problems,” he said.
He attributed the phenomenon of underage marriage in the Kingdom to a number of reasons, including the wrong cultural perception of women as unimportant human beings. “We deal with women as if they have no say over their destiny,” he said.

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