A woman's lot in Saudi

Sydney Morning Herald
14 November, 2009
By Rick Fenely and Tim Elliott

WOMEN in Saudi Arabia must have a male guardian.

The law forbids women from driving cars, and their guardians - fathers, husbands, brothers or even male children - can restrict their freedom of movement.

Human Rights Watch reported in July this year: "Saudi officials continue to require women to obtain permission from male guardians to conduct their most basic affairs, like travelling or receiving medical care, despite government assertions that no such requirements exist."

In June, Saudi officials on the United Nations Human Rights Council committed to take steps to end the male guardianship rule, give women full legal identity and ban gender discrimination.

"The Saudi Government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom," reported the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson.

The organisation reported last year that women needed permission from male guardians before carrying out day-to-day activities such as education, employment, travel or opening a bank account.

In June this year, a renowned women's rights activist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, tested the Saudi claims to reform. She went to the Bahrain border crossing three days in a row, and each time guards refused to let her cross because she did not have her guardian's permission.

Sydney Morning Herald
14 November, 2009
By Rick Fenely and Tim Elliott

An Australian is trapped with her children in Saudi Arabia while her husband languishes in jail, both victims of a campaign by her former husband. Rick Feneley and Tim Elliott report.

At first glance Jennifer Birrell is a free woman living a privileged life in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

"It's a weird prison," she concedes. "A big house with a pool and a nice new car, all behind massive concrete walls that no one can see inside of. That's the prison. So I live here with my maid and my kids and my driver."

But here the 33-year-old Muslim convert is trapped, unable to obtain an exit visa to return to Australia, and with no right to visit her husband, Mohammed Ahmed Nagi, in jail. Also 33, he has been held in the Malaz prison for more than 15 months. He has another 21 months to serve. He has endured 200 lashes, 50 at a time, and will be subjected to 100 more.


The couple's hellish predicament detailed in Birrell's pleading letter to the Saudi king rests on several flimsy pieces of paper, all wielded by her abusive former husband. This is the Yemeni man she married in Australia in 1998 and who fathered three of her children, all Australian citizens. They moved to Saudi Arabia in 2004, but she fled from him two years and three months ago, fearing for her life, after he allegedly threatened to kill her and bashed her three times with a candle stick, caving in her forehead.

Among his pieces of paper was an old mobile phone bill. He had her account redirected to him while they were separated, and he took the bill to police in July last year, five months after he granted her a divorce in court.

By now Birrell's colleague Mohammed Nagi had offered to become her guardian, or mahram. In accordance with Muslim custom, he had asked her father's permission and they married in June last year, in accordance with Sharia law, at the Egyptian embassy in Riyadh. Their marriage certificate was legalised in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi Ministry of Justice. After all, the law in the kingdom requires a woman have a male guardian.

But that phone bill? It showed that Birrell, after separating from her former husband, called Nagi almost daily for two months. That is not surprising, she says. She had been the director of English at Al-Yamamah University, where she managed more than 50 English teachers from around the western world. Nagi was her finance manager. She needed to consult him often in day-to-day business. The calls rarely lasted more than two minutes, she says.

Nevertheless, the phone bill without the details of a single conversation was enough to convince a judge that Nagi was guilty of takbeeb, "destruction of the family". Nagi's lawyer was forbidden from giving evidence, Birrell says. She was not allowed to testify about the abuse she suffered in her previous marriage.

"This issue could easily be settled if the judge from the criminal court would speak to the judge in the family court, where my ex-husband confessed to his abuse with no shame, as though it was his right," Birrell said.

In August last year, nearly two months after his wedding, Nagi was sentenced to three years' jail and the 300 lashes, essentially for being a home wrecker. "With no proof only my ex-husband's malicious false claim," Birrell says.

Her former husband retains another critical piece of paper. In March last year, the month after their formal divorce, he illegally renewed on his residence permit his sponsorship of her falsely stating they were still married. He held the passports of Birrell and her eldest daughter, now 11.

The family court judge ordered in February last year that the former husband transfer this sponsorship to her employer. He did not comply and the judge subsequently ordered him to transfer her sponsorship within 10 days or risk going to jail. The former husband ignored that order too, and no action has been taken against him.

The Australian embassy wrote to the former husband in April last year, demanding that he return his former wife's passport. That request, too, has been ignored.

Birrell got a new passport, but cannot get a visa to leave Saudi Arabia without the approval of the man who, on paper, is still her nominated sponsor her former husband. The embassy has been unable to advance her case.

She also begged for protection from the Governor of Riyadh, who she says asked police to arrest her former husband over his failure to transfer her sponsorship but again nothing happened. And she has taken her appeal to the highest authority, seeking the mercy, help and protection of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. She is hopeful of a response.

However, worried that her options are running out, Birrell has agreed with reservations to speak out about her ordeal. "I know perhaps I'm seen as a silly blonde who married a Bedouin," she told the Herald.

Birrell has been a senior manager at three universities in Saudi Arabia. She is no silly blonde. Her troubled journey to Saudi Arabia began, in some ways, 14 years ago in Adelaide, where she was raised. Then 19, she married a fellow pentecostal Christian. He was soon diagnosed with a rare cancer and seven months after their wedding he died of a surgical complication. "It made me weaker in my faith, made me question stuff."

She began reading about the prophet Muhammad. At 21, while area manager for the Bank of South Australia, she turned up at the Adelaide Mosque. She converted six months later. After a brief, failed second marriage, from which she had her first child, her Imam and "other good Muslims I trusted" recommended her the man who would become her next husband.

"I had only met him three times, and there was zero attraction," she said. But she was impressed with his knowledge of Islam. While a Yemeni national, he carried a Saudi passport and came from Saudi Arabia "the heartland of Islam, the 'Kingdom of Humanity' ".

"I was naive. I do blame myself. But I wanted a good man a good Muslim according to the Islam I had read and learned about."

In 2004, six years after marrying, they moved to Saudi Arabia. "Being close to Mecca was wonderful," she says. "It clouds your eyes to all the rest that is going on around you."

But it was here that her husband became abusive and severely beat her, she tells the king in her letter. Birrell fled their Riyadh home in August 2007 and took refuge with a Saudi prince and his wife, whose children she had been tutoring in English. She says she dared to return to the family home on September 12 that year, only after her husband promised he would be gone.

She writes to the king: "On entering my home he was waiting he screamed, 'I will kill you, I will kill you' and bludgeoned me over the head three times with a candle-stick holder, my head was caved in and full of blood."

Police arrested him. However, at Sahafa police station, officers suggested she bargain with him. Police asked if she wanted money, but that did not interest a woman who had been the family bread winner while the former husband refused to work.

"I requested a divorce and a restraining order against him, as I feared he would try to kill me."

She added: "He verbally divorced me in accordance with Islamic Sharia in the presence of two male witnesses."

Police had refused her copies of his signed confession and bargain agreement. Australian embassy requests were similarly declined.

In court on February 2 last year he divorced her a second time. But he would subsequently call her at work, threatening to kill her. He followed her home from work. One night, she says, he rammed his car into the door of her car. In a cafe he assaulted a family member visiting from Australia.

Birrell won custody of their youngest son, 4. Her former husband was granted custody of their other two children, 6 and 8. The children spend time with both parents.

She says her former husband lodged another complaint against her for supposedly "lewd conduct" for appearing before a neighbour's 19-year-old son without a face veil when he was helping her removalist. "He asked the children and they said I did not have my face covered," she says. "There is no law that says a woman must have her face covered, but a husband has these powers the right to complain about his wife's actions for a year after the divorce."

While she does not cover her face, Birrell chooses to wear the black hijab. She prefers modesty in a country where strangers commonly declare their love and propose marriage. "Even when I went to Saudi Human Rights to seek help, the man there suggested I divorce my current husband and marry him."

She is told her former husband dropped the face veil case. But his hold over her continues.

If she could, she would take her eldest daughter back to Australia. All her children have Australian passports, but she has no visas for the other children. Nevertheless, she could then travel between the countries while she fought for the release of her husband, the Egyptian-born Nagi "the only man who was there to help me".

Egypt's Foreign Ministry has told Nagi's father the evidence against him includes a signed confession. In court, Nagi swore on the Koran he made no such confession and that the paper was a fake.

Birrell's former husband has not responded to the Herald's detailed questions. Nor has the Saudi embassy in Canberra. Neither the Australian embassy in Riyadh nor the Foreign Affairs department in Canberra would comment, citing privacy.

Even if we do not have the full story, the question remains: what nation has a right to treat a woman this way? In Saudi Arabia, that "right" rests on an entrenched system of sexual apartheid. Despite Saudi claims of reform, women continue to be treated not even as second-class citizens but as a lower species.

In the meantime, Birrell has her big house, her children, her maid and her driver.

"And I have a great job, but it's still a daily struggle to survive under such oppression."

Despite her appeals, she cannot visit her husband in jail. She admits to making bad choices.

She blames her "trusting Aussie nature" for always hoping to see the best in people. She repeats her "silly blonde" line.

"But I'm still a human, an Australian and perhaps a classic case of warning for all the future silly blondes contemplating the same."

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