Bethany Vierra AlHaidari was born in Seattle, Washington. She is the daughter of a pastor and a volunteer kindergarten teacher. Curious about the world, she spent the majority of her adult life working in countries throughout Africa and the Middle East. When Tunisians took to the streets to overthrow their dictator in December 2010, Bethany was there, working as a teacher, and inspired by the change.
In 2011, Bethany moved to Saudi Arabia. There, she worked as a university lecturer and conducted research for her Masters In middle East & Islamic studies and PhD on International human rights Law. Both dissertations focused on ethnographic research on Saudi Arabia. She also worked as a freelance journalist, reporting on human rights issues inside the country under the pen name “Bayan Perazzo” to protect her identity.
In 2012, Bethany met her future husband, a man from Riyadh, and the two were married in 2013. Bethany gave birth to a now 5-year old girl, Zaina. As the relationship deteriorated, Bethany wanted to shield and protect her daughter. She requested a divorce and moved out with her daughter in 2018. Bethany had been a stay-at-home mother for the duration of her marriage. In order to support her daughter, Bethany took a leave of absence from her PhD work in Ireland and opened up Saudi Arabia’s first licensed yoga studio, the company she named after her daughter. Bethany later found herself stuck in Saudi Arabia. Both her and her daughter were unable to exit without her husband’s permission due to Saudi Arabian sponsorship and male guardianship laws.
Once officially stuck in the country, Bethany filed for divorce and custody of the couple’s daughter, citing her husband’s drug use and abuse. Unable to afford a lawyer at the time, and with broken Arabic, Bethany litigated her own divorce case in Riyadh in January of 2019. She experienced the extreme discrimination against women in Saudi personal status courts, where a woman’s word did not count against a mans, and where a woman’s testimony or evidence could be ignored if the man “took an oath” that his version of events was true. It seemed impossible to win.
Following the divorce, for months, Bethany’s ex-husband refused to speak to her or Zaina. Bethany’s husband’s compliance as her sponsor or “Kafeel” was required to renew her residency, but he refused to help her. Bethany’s legal status in Saudi Arabia expired on February 4, 2019. Her daughter lived in her care, however, she could be deported at any moment, her bank accounts were frozen, she was unable to pay bills, pay salaries of her employees, or get access to health care. In March of 2019, following New York Times coverage of the situation, the Saudi authorities intervened to resolve the residency issue.
In April of 2019, Bethany’s ex-husband filed to remove custody of their daughter from her, and give it to his mother. He cited Bethany working full time, being diagnosed with ADHD, gender mixing, and used personal photos of her in the United States wearing Western clothing as justifications of her being unfit to parent. On several occasions he would falsely claim that Bethany was refusing visitation, and without trial or service of process, Bethany would be issued a travel ban and suspension of government services. The father was granted supervised court ordered visitations every Friday for 5 hours.
In May of 2019, Bethany was forcibly called into a Riyadh police station. She was investigated and facing criminal “public indecency” charges for a video of her doing yoga in Riyadh’s diplomatic quarters near the yoga studio she owned. The video had been stolen from her private social media account in violation of Saudi cyber crime laws and submitted in the custody case to argue that she was unfit to parent. After being investigated and learning she was facing criminal charges, the next day on May 6, 2019, Bethany and her daughter spent 12 hours in the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, seeking refuge. Department of State denied refuge to the two U.S. citizens, citing the ongoing cases in Saudi courts and the child’s dual U.S. & Saudi citizenship, but agreed to start attending the court hearings as neutral observers. Bethany hired a new legal team to take on the custody case, the criminal charges, and several other cases that were pending in the personal status court.
In July of 2019, the custody hearings were closed, and a ruling was announced. The Riyadh court initially found both parents unfit. The presiding judge, Mr. Abdulelah Mohammed AlTuwaijiri denied Bethany custody stating: “the mother is new to Islam, and is a foreigner in this country, and continues to definitively embrace the customs and traditions of her upbringing: we must avoid exposing Zaina to these customs and traditions, especially at this early age of rapid development. It is noteworthy that Zaina appeared in some videos speaking English fluently.” Judge AlTuwaijiri additionally used the company that the mother had opened in Saudi Arabia against her, stating “the mother has a busy work schedule managing her yoga company“.
The Riyadh court granted the father’s request to give his mother full custody, despite the grandmother’s own history of abuse. The grandmother’s daughter testified to the court to keep her niece Zaina with Bethany, stating that their mother “abused medications, was dependent on servants that she was cruel to, and that her own daughters had chosen custody with their father following the divorce due to their mothers harsh temper”. The sister was accused of being a “feminist who disobeyed her mother”, and the judge disregarded her testimony. The ruling was further complicated by the fact that Zaina’s father was the male guardian of his own mother.
Following the ruling, U.S. Department of State officially raised the case to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, citing discrimination in the court ruling. Several high-ranking Saudi government officials started to intervene in the case. Bethany was advised by Saudi government officials not to bring Zaina to her scheduled visitation session following the initial ruling as the child would not be required to return. They assured her there would be no consequences. Instead, without trial or service of process, she learned that she had been issued a 10-year travel ban and an arrest warrant for missing the visitation session. The Saudi Human Rights Commission started to pressure Bethany “not to anger her ex-husband”, to let him have unsupervised visitations with the child, and “not to speak to the media” or disturb the courts. Bethany submitted a 100-page appeal on the custody ruling to the Riyadh Court of Appeals in August of 2019. The appeal included medical reports from the couples’ marriage counseling sessions over two years that were released by emergency order from a court in Massachusetts. The medical reports confirmed her points in court regarding both the father and the grandmother.
In a violation of Saudi due process laws, Bethany’s appeal was ignored, and she was summoned for an additional custody hearing at the personal status courts on September 5th and September 17th. In both sessions, with U.S. Embassy staff present, a custody hearing was not held, instead Bethany and her ex-husband were called into the office of the President of the Personal Status Court in Riyadh. The head of the personal status court informed both parties that they would have to come up with a settlement. Abandoned by the courts and at an extreme disadvantage due to her ex-husbands power over her daughter as her male guardian and Bethany’s status as a foreigner in the country, Bethany had to resort to degrading measures to appease her ex-husband. On September 17th, when the court informed them that neither party would get custody, nobody was allowed to speak of the past, and they needed to decide on the days where the child would say. Bethany panicked, as a foreigner she had no rights over her child’s life without custody, and would forever be dependent on him and stuck in Saudi Arabia. Bethany panicked. She apologize and pretended to be in love with him again in hopes that she could one day get her daughter out and to safety.
A Saudi court document was signed under duress out of fear in November of 2019. Within the court document, Bethany was forced to drop all her cases in court, indefinitely waive any claims to financial support for her daughter, prohibited from speaking about the custody case to anyone or to media, required to fix any “damage” incurred to the father due to the publicity of the cases. The court document references a letter the mother was forced to notarize which states that “Zaina’s home is Saudi Arabia, and she should be raised as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia until she is a legal adult”. Within the document she further swears that if she does not return to Saudi Arabia with the daughter she will serve 3 years in prison in the U.S. and pay a $250,000 fine. Alongside this document at the same visit, she wrote an additional declaration in secret at the embassy declaring she is being forced under duress to settle. Within the finalized court document, the judge cited “Kashaf AlQuenaa: Custody Chapter” as a legal point of reference. The official legal resource of the Saudi ministry of Justice declares within that “non-Muslims do not have custody rights over Muslims”, makes citation to slaves not having custody rights because they must serve their master, and to the sexualization of children as young as seven.
Since men in Saudi Arabia are automatically the male guardians of their children at birth and control their child’s right to travel, Bethany was forced to continue pretending to be in a relationship with her ex-husband in order to secure a chance to travel home with her daughter. On December 15th, 2019, Bethany and Zaina arrived in Washington State from Saudi Arabia. Bethany reported her situation upon landing, and immediately started looking for a lawyer. She filed a case in January of 2020 and was granted temporary emergency jurisdiction in the State of Washington with her daughter.
In April of 2020, a motion was filed to enforce the Saudi court document that she was forced to sign. Bethany argued the right to stay under a rarely used legal clause in the International Application of the Uniform Child Custody & Jurisdiction Act under RCW 26.27.051 (3), which permits a court of the United States to reject a foreign order if specifically the child custody law of the country in question violates principles of human rights. The clause has never been successfully upheld at the appeal level.
The US courts are currently deciding whether they will enforce the Saudi court document. If enforced, Bethany and Zaina will have to return to Saudi Arabia.
The Chelan County court minutes from July 22nd 2020 state; “court noted if Mother were to return to Saudi Arabia she would be subject to prison or possibly death”.
We stand with Bethany, and we’re calling on all lawmakers and policymakers to ensure that Bethany and Zaina can stay in the United States for good, and that no parent would be placed in a similar circumstance.