An American mother just lost custody of her daughter because a Saudi judge ruled she was too Western to raise the child. Her own parents now worry they will lose both grand-daughter and daughter. An interesting case about Western Women in Arabia dealing with child custody is bubbling up in Arabia.

western woman arabia custody

Thicker than Oil

Bethany, a 32-year-old student and yoga teacher, moved to Saudi Arabia to teach at a university in 2011. She recently divorced her Saudi husband, and sought custody of their four-year-old daughter. Recently, the Saudi court concluded that she would not be a good parent.

The judge ruled in his denial of the mother’s custody of her daughter:

“The mother is new to Islam, is a foreigner in this country, and continues to definitively embrace the customs and traditions of her upbringing. We must avoid exposing (the child) to these customs and traditions, especially at this early age.”

In statements submitted to the court, counsel for the ex-husband used her social media postings as evidence of an allegedly un-Islamic lifestyle.

In translated court documents, a summary of accusations against her includes the fact that she had gone to US festival Burning Man, which is characterized as “the world’s strangest festival” where attendees “appear in crazy clothes and stay awake all night dancing and surrounded by people wearing only shoes made of fur, or drinking drugs (sic) or cold drinks.”

According to the judge’s notes, counsel for her ex-husband also accused her of maintaining social media channels “full of nudity, intermingling of the two sexes and a lot of things and actions contrary to our religion and customs and traditions.”

In court, Bethany countered that her ex-husband was actually the unfit parent, alleging that he was verbally abusive and used drugs. “There was drug use and that became an issue,” her mother told CNN. Her ex-husband has denied the accusations, and did not respond to requests for comment from CNN.

Florida Child Custody

I’ve written about child custody issues before. In Florida, the prevailing standard for determining “custody” is a concept call shared parental responsibility, or sole parental responsibility.

Generally, shared parental responsibility is a relationship ordered by a court in which both parents retain their full parental rights and responsibilities. Under shared parental responsibility, parents are required to confer with each other and jointly make major decisions affecting the welfare of their child.

In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents when a marriage or a relationship ends. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.

At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child. Determining the best interests of a child is no longer entirely subjective. Instead, the decision is based on an evaluation of certain factors affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.

While social media evidence can be useful in determining some of the factors in the statute, being “new to Islam” and “embracing the customs and traditions” of a parent’s upbringing are not factors a court in Florida would consider unless harm to the child can be shown.

Oil Well that Ends Well?

The judge ultimately granted custody of Zaina to her Saudi grandmother, who lives with Zaina’s father.

“The fact that the father is residing with his mother is likely a temporary situation. Knowing that it is in men’s nature not to stay at home and not to honor/fulfill parental role themselves.”

Bethany was given until this Sunday to appeal the judge’s custody ruling, and for now, the child remains with her. But her parents tell CNN that there is a warrant out for her arrest after she missed a child visitation from her ex-husband– a visitation her parents say she didn’t know about.

They also say that Bethany has been banned from leaving Saudi Arabia for the next 10 years, though they were not able to provide further detail on the reason.

She wants to have the rights to go and come. She used to have that right says Bethany’s father. He says a judge also warned his daughter not to talk to the media.

Shifting Sands

Saudi Arabia has taken tentative steps towards the emancipation of women in recent years.

In 2012 Saudi women were allowed to compete at the Olympic Games for the first time. In 2015, women were allowed to vote in local elections for the first time. And recently, after a sustained campaign, women were allowed to drive.

At the end of this month, women will be allowed to hold a passport without needing permission of a male “guardian.” Nevertheless, the controversial guardianship system remains largely intact.

“A woman, from birth to death, must have a male guardian. The idea is that they are not capable and that men know better.”

Women still need a male guardian’s permission before having elective surgery, for example. And critically for Bethany, by Saudi law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s.

“Speaking generally, the U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. US citizens abroad are subject to local laws,” the official added.

Bethany is now racing to collect all the necessary documents to appeal the custody ruling before the window closes this Sunday.

The CNN article is here.