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Female Saudi doctor appeals to top court for right to choose a husband

Samia fled to a women's shelter rather than be forced by her male relatives to marry a less educated cousin. Her case illustrates women's growing fight against Saudi Arabia's guardianship system.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / May 23, 2011

A Saudi man walks past women in a crafts tent at a fair in Riyadh. Women face a host of strictures.

Hassan Ammar/Newscom/File


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Samia is a surgeon who, as she says, is "supposed to be a grandma by now."

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But she's not even married yet. As with many women in Saudi Arabia, choosing a husband was not solely up to her. Her father and brothers demanded that she marry a cousin, and, she says, beat her when she refused. For the past five years, she has lived in a shelter for battered women.

"I'm a surgeon. I'm responsible for people's lives," says Samia, now in her 40s. "I want to be responsible for my own life."

Samia's situation, described in multiple interviews both in person and via phone and e-mail, is not unusual in Saudi Arabia. It illustrates how this country's guardianship system gives men almost complete control over female relatives, as well as how little recourse women have to escape abusive guardians. She has taken her case to two courts, which both ruled against her, and she and her lawyer now seek a hearing in the country's Supreme Court.

IN PICTURES: Behind the veil

Under Islam, a woman has the right to choose her partner, provided he is morally upright.

But the guardianship system, which stems from tribal traditions and is deeply entrenched in Saudi Arabia's culture and legal system, requires women to get their guardians' permission to marry. Although many men respect their female relatives' wishes, others do not, despite warnings from Muslim leaders.

"Forcing a woman to marry someone she does not want and preventing her from wedding [the man] whom she chooses ... is not permissible," Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Asheikh, the kingdom's top religious authority, has said.

Samia's ordeal – and escape

Samia, who comes from the holy city of Medina, asked that her real name be withheld because Saudis consider it shameful to air family disputes in public. She says that her father insists she marry one of her male cousins, even though she loves none of them. They are all much younger and less educated than she is.

When Samia challenged her father, she was locked in her bedroom for weeks, she said, and beaten with a hose by her father and brothers. She keeps pictures of her bruises on her iPad.

Fearing for her life, she sought refuge in the government-run shelter where she still lives. She also filed a complaint against her father in a Medina court.

But like most Saudi judges, Ali Abdulaziz al-Sudais fervently believes in guardianship. In December 2009, he dismissed her case, describing her as a "disobedient" daughter who should see a psychiatrist "to help with her problem in being stubborn with her father and not listening to him because he knows what's best for her," according to his written ruling. An appeals court recently affirmed Mr. Sudais's ruling.

"This is an exceptional case," says her lawyer, Ahmed al-Sudairy, in an interview in his Jeddah office, noting that her father has also refused to let three other daughters – all in their early 30s – marry anyone but a cousin.

The money factor

Samia says her father also had taken her salary for years, leaving her just a small monthly allowance.

Money is often a motive for abusive guardians' behavior, says Hussein Nasser al-Sharif, manager of the Jeddah branch of the National Society for Human Rights, even though Islamic precepts stipulate that a woman's earnings are her own.

Sheikh Asheikh has said that "fathers who make it a condition to have their daughters' salaries before they give their consent for marriage are ... wrong."


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