By Donna Abu-Nasr,

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Two years ago, a knock on Fatima and Mansour al-Timani’s door shattered the life they had built together.

It was the police, delivering news that a judge had annulled their marriage in absentia after some of Fatima’s relatives sought the divorce on grounds she had married beneath her.

That was just the beginning of an ordeal for a couple who — under Saudi Arabia’s strict segregation rules — can no longer live together. They sued to reverse the ruling, publicized their story, and sought help from a Saudi human-rights group. But the two remain apart, and Fatima said she is considering suicide if her recent appeal to King Abdullah does not reunite her with her husband.

“Only the king can resolve my case,” Fatima told the Associated Press by telephone in a rare interview. “I want to return to my husband, but if that is not possible, I need to know so I can put an end to my life.”

Fatima’s case underscores shortcomings in the kingdom’s Islamic legal system in which rules of evidence are shaky, lawyers are not always present, and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.

The most frequent victims are women, who already suffer severe restrictions on daily life in Saudi Arabia: They cannot drive, appear before a judge without a male representative, or travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission. Recently, the king did intervene and pardon another high-profile defendant — a rape victim who was sentenced to lashes and jail time for being in a car with a man who was not her relative.The two cases have brought Saudi human rights once again into the international spotlight, exposing not only the weakness of the kingdom’s justice system, but the scant rights of Saudi women.

“When I heard that the [rape victim] was pardoned, I couldn’t believe it. My case is so much simpler than hers, since my divorce is invalid,” Fatima said.

Fatima said her husband, a hospital administrator, followed Saudi tradition in asking her father for permission to marry her in 2003.

“My brother reported good things about him, so my dad accepted his proposal,” Fatima, a computer specialist who was 29 when she married, said.

She said her father knew that Mansour came from a less prominent tribe than hers, but that he did not mind because he “cared about the man himself.”

A few months after the wedding, several of Fatima’s relatives, including a half brother, persuaded her father to give them power of attorney to file a lawsuit demanding an annulment, she said.

Then her father died, and Fatima said she had hoped the case would be dropped. But on February 25, 2006, police knocked on the couple’s door to serve Mansour with divorce papers — which said his marriage had been annulled nine months earlier. “We were shattered. How did this happen? Why?” Fatima asked.
Under Saudi law, a woman needs the permission of her family to marry. A Saudi lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, who used to represent the couple, said local interpretations of Islamic law hold that relatives of a married couple have the right to seek an annulment if they feel the marriage lowers the extended family’s status. He said authorities are reluctant to overrule such annulment orders, believing they are private matters within extended families.

Fatima took the couple’s 2-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son to live with her mother, who had persuaded her to let Mansour deal with the legal issues on his own. But after three months without her husband, Fatima and the children sneaked out of her mother’s house and flew with Mansour to the western seaside city of Jiddah, where they sought to live in anonymity. Saudi police soon discovered them and imprisoned the family for living together illegally. “The police told me I either return to my [mother’s] family or go to jail,” Fatima said. “I chose jail.” “My children and I were thrown in a cell with women sentenced for pushing drugs, practicing witchcraft, and behaving immorally,” Fatima said. Authorities allowed her to send her daughter back to live with her father, but the infant stayed with Fatima in jail.

“He learned to speak in jail, he learned to walk in jail, and his teeth came out in jail,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mansour went to court to appeal the divorce ruling, but a Riyadh appeals court upheld the decision in 2007.

Last September, the head of a prominent Saudi human-rights group reportedly asked the kingdom’s highest court to review the case. Bandar al-Hajjar, head of the National Society of Human Rights, submitted two Islamic studies concluding that the divorce was invalid, according to the Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily.

The studies, conducted by Islamic researcher Adnan al-Zahrani and Bassam al-Bassam, a counselor at the Court of Cassation in Mecca, said that if a woman’s legal guardian represented her at the original wedding, then other relatives have no right to object to the marriage based on compatibility. Both studies concluded that Fatima married Mansour with her father’s permission, and that only the wife can decide whether she wants her marriage annulled, the paper reported.

Despite their legal fight, Fatima and Mansour remain apart.

After nine months in jail, Fatima moved to an orphanage where she and her son share an apartment with several other women.

Fatima said she is holding out hope the king might pardon her, and recognize her as “married to Mansour, before God.”

It has been said that a civilization can be assessed by how it treats its women, children, and animals. Islam and the Saudis don’t score very high.—Editor

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