Motherhood in a Kingdom of Men


In May 2011, I drove a car on Saudi roads, with my brother beside me and my sister-in-law, her baby and my son, Aboudi, in the back seat. In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to drive.

I was arrested and spent nine days in prison. At the time, I was a working, divorced mother. As a result of my protest, I was threatened — imams wanted me to be publicly lashed — and monitored and harassed. I was pushed out of my job. After that, I had to move from my home. Without a safe place to work or live, with other Saudis calling for my death, I had no choice but to leave the only country I had ever known. The hardest part was leaving behind Aboudi, who was then 6 and a half years old.

I had driven with the hope of freeing women in Saudi society — and by freeing women, I also hoped to free men. I had driven so that Aboudi might know a better life. Instead, my protest accelerated our separation.

Divorce is common in Saudi Arabia. According to recent numbers from the Saudi General Authority of Statistics, about one-third of all couples divorce. Or, as the Arab News put it, there are at least five divorces every hour of every day.

In a divorce, Saudi fathers retain all legal custody of children and all rights to the marital home. They’re granted full physical custody for girls at age 7 and often for boys at age 9; even though Aboudi was only 6, I couldn’t take him with me because his father retained legal custody. Since Saudi women must have a designated male guardian, divorced women are made to return to their father’s or another male relative’s home. Across the kingdom, mothers fight back tears as they are forced to leave the children they have raised and the homes where their babies took their first steps and said their first prayers.

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