SAUDI FIGHTING FOR DIVORCE FROM MISSING FRENCH HUSBAND
Lulwa Shalhoub, Arab News
JEDDAH, 14 February 2008
E.H., a Saudi woman, has been fighting for three years to get a divorce from her missing French husband. Her four-year-old twins, a boy and a girl called Mu’ayyad and Munya, live with her at a shelter home. A high school graduate, E.H. is jobless. She cannot afford a house, nor can she offer her children proper education.
E.H., who asked her full name not be published, married her husband, a French businessman, in 2002. He would often visit Jeddah and wished to marry a Saudi woman. People recommended E.H., who was in her 30s at the time. E.H. had been married previously and had children from that marriage. This was the Frenchman’s third marriage. He had previously married two French women and had two children from each marriage.
The couple married after getting permission from the Interior Ministry. They went on honeymoon to France and it was there that she realized she had made a mistake by marrying him.
“He had a bad temper and would shout at me and beat me. He was irresponsible. My parents told me maybe I was still not used to him and that it was too early to think of divorce,” said E.H.
E.H. is now nearly 40 and her husband is 56. After giving birth to the twins, E.H. did not want her children to see their mother being beaten up by their father and so went to live with her family. It was then that she heard that her husband had left the Kingdom without informing her. It has been three years since and she knows nothing about him. The couple’s children, at that time, were only 18 months old.
Although her situation is like that of a divorcee, E.H. is still technically married and cannot, therefore, claim social insurance payments given to divorced and widowed Saudi women by the General Organization for Social Insurance. She is also unable to travel abroad or do anything without her husband’s permission, who is her legal guardian.
In 2006, E.H. filed for divorce. The judge who heard her case demanded her husband’s address and telephone number to send him a court summons. E.H. only has her mother-in-law’s telephone number in France and called her several times to look for her husband. Her mother-in-law said she does not know where her son lives or whether he is in France or not.
The judge said the court has to inform the Interior Ministry, which will ask the Foreign Ministry to seek diplomatic help to make the man appear in court.
E.H. pays around SR4,000 a year for her accommodation. Her parents live in Makkah but she lives in Jeddah so her children can attend a French school.
When E.H. attends court, officials blame her for her predicament. They ask her why she married a non-Saudi. “This is what I have to hear every time I go to court. But I can see how the court is full of complicated divorce cases involving Saudi couples,” she said.
E.H. also finds it too costly to make visits to the court and governorate offices. She is often harassed and men stare at her. People also want to know about her and have no intention to help.
Her case is now on hold because her husband’s address is unavailable. E.H. wonders how she would be able to find her husband if she cannot travel abroad without his permission.
Meanwhile, her children needed to apply for Saudi citizenship because their father is French. It took E.H. six months to overcome procedures at the Passport Department to get citizenship for her children — three months in Riyadh and another three months in Jeddah. E.H. had to pay SR2,000 for the process and another SR2,000 fine.
“My husband neglected registering our children although they were a year and a half old when he left the Kingdom,” she said.
However, the French Consulate has been helpful. French Consul Issa Maraut, and his deputy, Elie Nemah, met E.H. and asked her if she needed any help. They offered her IDs and passports free of charge and offered the children free education at a French International School. “They promised to support me by communicating with the French government to give my children their rights and to find my husband so that he could set me free and provide expenses for our children,” she said.
Muhammad Al-Salmi, a Saudi lawyer, told Arab News that the case is complicated and difficult to solve. “The judge has to post an announcement searching for the husband in a widely read Saudi newspaper that could reach France,” he said.
He added that the announcement must be made for two months at least. If there was no response, then the judge would issue E.H. a divorce in absentia. That way she would be able to claim money from the General Organization for Social Insurance.
“If the husband showed up after that, he should pay her expenses for all the years that he has been absent. He will also be responsible for financially supporting his children. If not she only has the insurance allowance to rely on,” Al-Salmi said.
“Islam asked men to take care of their wives’ expenses and that a man should not leave his wife like this: neither divorced and nor married. Islamic law does not allow men to cut contacts with their wives for more than four months in a row,” said the lawyer.
E.H. now calls on Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to consider her case and the cases of other women in similar situations. “Am I being punished because I married a non-Saudi? Or am I being punished because I want to have my children’s rights and my right to be divorced?” she said.