For Teresa Malof, the ad seeking nurses to work in Saudi Arabia was a chance to reboot her life. She was 29, her mother had recently passed away and her first marriage had ended in divorce. So she would leave Cincinnati and spend a year working at Riyadh's King Fahad National Guard Hospital and make money.
That was in 1996. More than 20 years later, she’s still there and Saudi Arabia became home; she remarried and took a loan to buy a house in an upscale suburb of Riyadh she shared with her now ex-husband, Mazen, a USC grad, and their three children, Naif, Shireen and Mishal.
But when Malof sought to extricate herself from her almost 18-year marriage, she says she quickly crashed against limits imposed by a sharia-based legal system that has often treated women as second-class citizens, and that has left Saudi wives, including foreigners such as herself, with little recourse in court.
Malof and Mazen divorced four years ago, but she is still making payments for the house despite having been forced to move out shortly after the marriage ended. A hall of mirrors of claims and counterclaims has frozen the deed, so even the though the house is in her name, she cannot sell it or transfer the loan to her ex-husband’s name.
Her ex-husband insists that Malof is lying and that he partly owns the house because of payments he made to Malof and others.
She has also been unable to force him to pay the divorce settlement; without it, she says, she faces financial ruin.
“I want to be free, to have some endgame to this situation,” she said. “I feel like it’s never going to happen.”
The kingdom has long treated women as second-class citizens, with laws forcing them, whether they are Saudi natives or foreigners married to Saudis, to rely on a male relative or husband for permission to travel, seek medical treatment or engage in other critical life decisions.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has sought to change that image. In recent years, the government has overturned its ban on women driving, loosened some restrictions in its guardianship laws and promoted women’s role in the workplace.
Yet the changes have not been enough, many women say, and some continue to flee. Last week, 28-year-old Maha Zayed Subaie and sister Wafa, 25, the latest examples of Saudi women running away from the kingdom, received asylum in an unnamed third country.
The case of Malof and those of other foreign and Saudi women interviewed illustrate inequities in the country’s legal system, which is based on Islamic jurisprudence. Because the law is mostly unwritten and based on the Koran and other Islamic texts, judges have wide latitude in interpreting them.
“The judges are the issue. They view the woman in these cases as someone who is asking for something, not a person with rights. And the man, they always see him as the injured party,” said a Saudi acquaintance of Malof who refused to give her name for reasons of privacy.
The woman added that her own case, regarding the breaking of a guardianship, involved a round-robin-like series of court appearances before different judges.
“They stretch out an issue for years when there is no need,” she said. “It’s as if you want to drink water, and it’s your right, but you still have to ask permission.”
The problems are compounded, she said, when the woman is a foreigner. Many, such as Malof, are converts to Islam (both parties must be Muslim in marriage to a Saudi), and often don’t speak the language.
Malof did not have a court-appointed interpreter, meaning she often had little understanding of documents she was told she must sign or of arguments made in court. She finally brought a friend to translate, she said, but by then she had missed out on legal avenues she could have pursued.
Foreigners also are at a disadvantage in that the very legality of their presence in Saudi Arabia is reliant on their sponsor, in Malof’s case, the hospital and later her husband.
In the past, divorce meant the wife must return to her home country, leave her children behind and see them only if and when her ex-husband allowed it. (Since the courts’ priority is that a child be raised a good Muslim, custody is almost always granted to the Saudi party.)
The Saudi Justice Ministry recently launched what it called an Alimony Fund to provide financial support for divorced or abandoned women.
Besides monetary support, it would also slap a seven-year prison sentence on husbands who evade alimony. This year, the ministry ordered 3,683 divorced fathers to pay more than $13 million in child and spousal support, local media reported.
Recently, the government also created a so-called Mother of a Saudi Citizen residency, to permit recipients to travel to and from Saudi Arabia and to work without the permission of a male guardian. In some cases, women can be granted Saudi citizenship.
But such matters still rely on the cooperation of the ex-husband to provide the necessary paperwork.
Malof, for example, had permission to receive a Saudi passport, but her husband, she said, didn’t follow up on the procedure.
After their divorce, he did help her get the special residency, but without citizenship she doesn’t receive benefits afforded to those who have lived and worked in the country for most of their professional lives.
“I’m 51,” said Malof. “I’ve worked my entire life, left my country, my children from my first marriage, and I have no retirement. Nothing.”
“Saudi women would face the same thing, but they have family to support them. We’re here alone.”
Malof and others have turned to the Saudi Human Rights Commission for help. Michelle, another American with a troubled marriage, who gave only her first name for reasons of privacy, approached the commission when her Saudi husband threatened her with a gun.
But the commissioners were ineffective, she said. Though they spoke to her husband about the abuse, she said, she had to leave the country with no settlement, despite having contributed to buying their villa in Riyadh and for other household expenses.
“There are supposedly all these new laws to help expats married to Saudis, but they’re useless,” said Michelle in a recent phone conversation. “We have no rights here, even if we have Saudi children.”
The commission did assist Malof in getting her first lawyer but wasn’t able to enforce the subsequent divorce settlement. She has since worked with another lawyer. She has also sent letters to the Saudi monarch, King Salman, and the crown prince, pleading that they look into her case. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy says there is little it can do to intervene beyond offering a list of approved attorneys.
The Saudi Human Rights Commission and Malof’s attorneys have refused to comment on her case. A State Department official said the department was aware of Malof’s case and was providing “appropriate consular services,” but would not comment on “pending legal proceedings.”
The problem is not new.
In the 1990s, an eight-page brochure titled “Marriage to Saudis,” published by the consular bureau of the State Department, warned that an “American considering marriage to a Saudi must always contemplate the worst-case scenario.”
“Sharia law decidedly favors men in the dissolution of marriage,” it said, adding that “American wives are bitterly disappointed and angry when they discover the limits of the Department's and Embassy's ability to intervene or resolve family disputes.” (The text was soon removed for revision and never released again.)
Meanwhile, a moribund economy, high dowries and marriage expenses have pushed more Saudis to take foreign wives.
“When Saudi women would call us cheap, I realized they meant it literally. We were cheaper than the Saudi women. We have to take some responsibility for that,” said Malof, adding that she didn’t take her dowry, nor did most of her American friends married to Saudi men.