A group of women in Saudi Arabia

"This woman's case is particularly difficult because you have Saudi and Islamic customs, morals and religion coming into play," one outside expert says

March 11, 2019 05:23 PM

Bethany Vierra’s ex-husband seemed “charming and loving and generous and kind” when they first met a few years ago in Saudi Arabia — a romance that turned into a 2013 marriage. Soon after that, she gave birth to a daughter, Zaina.

But that idyllic life reportedly took a harsh turn: Vierra and her husband divorced, leaving her child ensnared by controversial local practices that place women and girls under the control of male “guardians.”

Under this system, a given man in each woman’s life — her father, husband, brother or uncle; sometimes even her son — has authority over her ability to travel and marry and, often, must provide his consent for her to gain employment, attend school or open a bank account, among other everyday activities.

Because of this Vierra, a 31-year-old from Washington, was for a time “completely stuck” in Saudi Arabia, her family told the New York Times: Her ex — whom her relatives asked the Times not to name given the sensitivity of her situation — allowed Vierra’s residency to expire, they said.

After the initial Times story last week, Vierra told the paper in a brief statement that she had been granted legal residency again, meaning she could access her bank account and travel — though without her daughter.

Zaina, 4, remains a ward of her father, the Times reports. Even though she was born in Saudi Arabia to an American mother, the kingdom considers her a Saudi citizen, subject only to Saudi law.

Vierra’s cousin Nicole Carroll, who went public with Vierra’s plight, told the paper that Vierra and her former spouse are fighting in court, where they have multiple cases, and she said that the ex has sued Vierra.

“I was never trying to escape Saudi Arabia,” Vierra wrote to the Times. “I have dedicated my life’s work to this country and being a part of its growth, development and vision for its future.”

She apparently has vanished from the web, with accounts on LinkedIn and elsewhere going dark. PEOPLE has been unable to reach her directly.

The Times wrote that her ex-husband did not respond to their inquiries. PEOPLE was unable to identify him further in order to reach out to him for comment. Saudi officials did not respond to questions from PEOPLE about Vierra’s case.

Reached by PEOPLE, Carroll wrote that she would not grant further interviews and referred a reporter back to the Times’ coverage.

“If you really want to help Bethany, feel free to contact Bethany’s elected representatives in Congress and ask them to come to her aid,” she wrote.

‘At the Beginning, It Seemed Great’

Vierra had already traveled extensively abroad when, her cousin told the Times, she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a women’s university while pursuing a graduate degree. While there, Vierra met and married a Saudi businessman.

“At the beginning, it seemed really great. … She felt like she had met somebody who was on the same page as her,” said Carroll, who was Vierra’s maid of honor at her wedding in Portugal, according to the Times.

Following their split, Vierra’s ex-husband essentially remained in control of her and her daughter as their guardian — a situation that came as no surprise to longtime observers of Saudi culture.

“A woman doesn’t have a lot of rights in Saudi Arabia,” Dale McElhattan, former director of the Office of Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, tells PEOPLE.

“This woman’s case is particularly difficult because you have Saudi and Islamic customs, morals and religion coming into play,” wherein the culture is governed by an intensely conservative branch of Islam that is intimately connected to the country’s ruling House of Saud, McElhattan says.

Vierra’s plight yet again illustrates the severe strictures women and girls live under in Saudi Arabia, where only recently were women allowed to drive and go to sporting events.

“We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us,” one Saudi woman told Human Rights Watch in a 2016 report on male guardianship.

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Said another: “It can mess with your head and the way you look at yourself. How do you respect yourself or how [can] your family respect you, if he is your legal guardian?”

Unlike the case of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun — who dramatically escaped her family in January and was granted refugee status in Canada (where she just celebrated a birthday) — Vierra’s situation includes a child.

And while Vierra has regained residency in the kingdom, she does not have equal parenting rights with her ex-husband, who would have to agree to let their daughter leave Saudi Arabia. (According to Vierra’s cousin, he did not let them return home for Christmas last year.)

“I’ve seen similar cases where the father didn’t care about the divorced mother but regarded the child as property and wouldn’t allow the child to leave,” says Neil C. Livingstone, who wrote Rescue My Child, about private operations to recover American children trapped abroad.

“The father has a lot of precedence,” Livingstone explains. “He can technically say that the child is his. He has greater say than she does.”

In the past, some desperate families have turned to private groups to help retrieve children from abroad. “In one case, a girl was picked up from the beach in a fast boat,” Livingstone says.

But, he says, “We can’t do that in Saudi Arabia.”

A System Slow to Change

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship rules have faced mounting scrutiny and criticism, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, has pledged reforms to the country’s historic gender discrimination.

“Prince Mohammed indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment,” Reuters reported in February.

The crown prince has human rights controversies of his own — most notably in the slaying of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was living in the U.S. when he briefly traveled to a Saudi consulate in Turkey last year where he was killed. American intelligence officials believe the killing was carried out at the behest or with the assent of the prince, which the Saudi government has denied.

Actual social changes have occurred only sporadically. In September, a family affairs court in Jeddah reportedly ordered a father to obtain a passport for his 24-year-old daughter who wanted to travel outside the country.

Guardianship has deep roots in Saudi culture, largely blending longstanding social custom and religious views instead of official decree or legislation, according to Reuters. Its defenders have called opponents “hate-mongers.”

In Vierra’s case, Livingstone says: “The State Department should step in.”

Citing privacy issues, a State Department official declined to discuss details of the case with PEOPLE.

“We have seen media reports of a U.S. citizen unable to leave Saudi Arabia with her daughter,” the official said. “We stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services in cases to U.S. citizens abroad.”

The official did not comment further and said Monday they had no information to share about Vierra or her daughter.

The former hostage negotiator, McElhattan, hopes for a happy outcome.

“This situation goes counter to the reforms Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been talking about,” he said last week, before the news that Vierra had been granted residency. “The embassy in Riyadh will work on resolution.”

The aim, McElhattan said, would be to settle the situation “without her being swallowed up by the system or tortured.”

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