Asima’s husband had been happiest at home in their garden, so she and her children planted a tree in their courtyard in his honor, so the children could remember him in the peaceful place that he loved.
In Islam, when a woman is widowed or children are orphaned, the blood relatives are supposed to take care of them. Abdul’s family ended up providing her with a small monthly allowance, which was not really enough to support her family. So she was forced to look for work to support herself and the kids and was able to secure a minimal paying job as a teacher’s assistant in a pre-school. Education and medicine are two of the very few fields in which women are allowed to work in Saudi Arabia because women and men are forbidden to work alongside one another in this strictly segregated society.
It was a battle with her in-laws to keep Faris in a Western school, and in the end Asima prevailed, although the family would only pay for the very cheapest Western school they could find. Asima was able to take Jannah to the school where she worked, without the knowledge of her in-laws since they were against sending the three-year- old girl to school. Somehow her in-laws never found out that she was working. They tried to control every aspect of their lives. They told her how she should dress, how to raise her kids, that she couldn’t leave the house when her son was at school. She sought help from the British Consulate but because she had dual nationality, they refused to help her, not that they would have been much help in a country like Saudi Arabia anyway. Asima hadn’t had any time to grieve for her husband because she had to remain strong for her kids. She was tired, but she couldn’t give up and let them win.
Through a good friend who encouraged her and helped her get the job and to face life without her husband, she gained strength and hope.
The in-laws took Asima to court under the pretext that they were trying to get her widow’s social security payments. Luckily her good friend sent along a translator for Asima and was it ever a good idea that she did! The hearing was an attempt to gain control over Asima’s finances and to force her to sell her home. The judge realized what was going on and denied her father-in-law these rights. She was VERY lucky to get this judge – many judges here in KSA would have ruled against her just because she’s a woman. Her father-in-law stormed off, leaving Asima and her toddler standing on the street outside the courthouse in the blazing sun. She had no idea where they were. Her father-in-law was so angry that he stopped providing her measly monthly allowance and didn’t speak to Asima for months. Months later, he tried once again to get her to sell the house. He took her to a little dumpy apartment, telling her that this would be her new home, that she didn’t need that big house. She had finally had enough. Raging, Asima screamed at her father-in-law, “I refuse to sell my house! That home is everything that Abdul worked for!” Abdul’s father backed down, knowing that he had pushed her too far this time.
Asima has also had to endure extreme harassment from Abdul’s brother Gamal. He has stalked her, terrorized her, attacked her, accused her of immoral behavior, barged into her home, threatened her, and scared her children to death by his strange and inappropriate behavior. It all came to an end a few months ago when Faris was able to stand up to him and told him to leave them alone – or else! Gamal broke down into tears, apologizing for his strange behavior, and claimed the devil had made him do it! He did promise to leave them alone and so far, he has been good to his word. This chapter in their lives made Abdul’s family realize that Faris is a man and no longer the child they used to be able to push around.
Over the years, there were moments of hope when Asima thought she might be able to leave the country with her children, only to be shot down time after time. When her son would reach a certain age, she was told, he could legally be made his mother’s and his sister’s Mahram (guardian), but strangely the required age kept changing, from 15 to 18 then to 21. She has watched her son grow into a man, but his grandfather denied him permission to study abroad, so he stays home now, bored, depressed and languishing while they wait for the day when they will be able to leave this country that has been like the family’s prison for the last eight years. Faris cannot work because no employer will hire him here with only a high school diploma. This is the dismal future Asima’s in-laws have given Faris, not the one his parents had envisioned for him. Many teenagers in Saudi Arabia become depressed or get into trouble because there are very few activities they can participate in. Little Jannah has been traumatized by the actions of the in-laws so much that she fears any man wearing a white thobe and has serious trust issues.
Financially Asima has struggled to make ends meet month after month. She has done freelance writing for a couple of major newspapers, has taught ESL to a very prominent Saudi family, serves as an amazing source of valuable information to the ex-pat community in Saudi Arabia, and surprisingly feels she has actually been given some job opportunities here that she may not have had elsewhere.
Four years ago her father-in-law passed away, and it pains her to say this, but her son Faris was so happy about it. Asima always wanted to keep peace in the family, but they made it impossible. So much so that Faris hated his grandfather and rejoiced when he learned of his death. It was definitely a relief for Asima and her children.
It’s not easy being married to someone from a totally different country, culture, and religion. And it’s certainly not easy to leave your family behind and move to your spouse’s homeland, uproot your whole life, forget about the religion you were raised with, and give up the many freedoms you have taken for granted to come to a country like Saudi Arabia, where a woman literally become the property of her husband. Until my own son was 14, the idea of moving to Saudi Arabia never really crossed my mind. Then suddenly, after 30 years in the states, my husband expressed his desire to move back to the country where he was born and grew up. If my son had been a girl, I would have never agreed to come. And the fact that he was already a teenager and would be a man in a few years was a factor in my decision to come here also. If things didn’t work out here in Saudi Arabia for us, then I figured we would be able to leave when my son came of age, although my husband has always assured me that we are free to leave here at any time if things get too unbearable for us. You see, females in Saudi Arabia are always the wards of a man here, whether it be her father, or her husband, or even her own son, as in Asima’s case.
Just recently Asima was referred to a Saudi lawyer by another British friend. The lawyer kindly offered his services free of charge and he represented them in court, which finally named Faris, at 20, the legal guardian over his sister Jannah. He is also the legal guardian of his mother Asima, since they are related by blood. Once Faris turns 21, he will be his own man, no longer needing a legal guardian of his own – formerly his grandfather, now his uncle – which means that once Asima has their affairs in order and sells their home, they will finally be able to leave Saudi Arabia. Once the house is sold, the proceeds will have to be divided up according to Islamic law.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for Asima. I’m actually in awe of how she has managed to hold her family together and survived here despite the odds and the obstacles she has had to face. Getting virtually no help from her husband’s family, as well overcoming the power struggle they have imposed on her over the years, has only made her stronger. Asima is a survivor. Yet she doesn’t see herself as brave and feels that she has only done what any other mother in her same position would have done to protect her children, although that’s not entirely true. Other women who have been widowed or divorced here have chosen to leave Saudi Arabia, most having to leave their children behind because of the laws here that favor the man – no surprise in this male-dominated society. Asima credits the support of a few close friends and the loyalty of her Pakistani driver with helping her make it through these past eight tumultuous years. Before he dies, her husband Abdul had asked the driver to stay on and watch over his family after he was gone, and the driver has done so, even though he’s past retirement age. He tells her that he will only retire and return to his home once she is free from this place with her children.
Asima has no regrets about marrying her husband. She has two awesome children and fond memories of her all too fleeting years spent with Abdul. But there are times when she thinks about how many years of her life she has lost for loving him and staying. However as far as her kids are concerned, nothing has been too high of a price to pay to stay in their lives as she has done. And when I asked her what advice she might offer to Saudi wives before coming to the KSA, she had this to say: “I wish I could just say ‘Don’t Come!’ But life isn’t that black and white. We always believe the worst won’t happen to us. We are with the person we love and who loves us, and that’s all that matters at the time. I would certainly advise all women to make a contract before marriage and be prepared just in case, both legally and financially. Also, have all legal documents kept safely with her, the house in her name, separate bank accounts, and dual citizenship for herself and the children.”
By the way, you may have guessed that Asima is not her real name. It was a name we chose for her because of its Arabic meaning, which is “protector.” Her sole aim all these years has been to protect her children, and she has done a remarkable and admirable job of doing just that. She hopes that by letting her story be known, it might help at least one woman make the right decision in her life and be protected. Asima knows that there are good Saudi men (she had one!) and good Saudi families. Unfortunately her Saudi family has been unkind and cruel to her and her children, a fate they will hopefully not have to endure much longer. She can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and it has been a very long tunnel. Telling her story has been very difficult for her; it’s been like reliving the pain of the last eight years again. But she has hope for the future, and she’s confident now that there IS a future for her and her children out there.
So let Asima’s story serve as a warning for any woman marrying a Saudi man and considering a move to Saudi Arabia. We all want our happy ending, but Saudi Arabia may be a difficult place to find it.
Asima continues to live in Saudi Arabia for now and still has her ups and downs, good days and bad. The end of her story has not yet been written because it has not yet played out. She still has hurdles ahead of her. There will be another chapter down the road, maybe even two, before all is said and done, and I will bring it to you at that time. Please keep her and her children in your prayers in the meantime.
And thank you, Asima, for sharing your important story with us.