Saudi Arabia: Appeals Court upholds ruling in controversial Fatima divorce case

Arab News
An appeals court has upheld the decision of a judge in the northern city of Al-Jouf in October to divorce a couple in absentia at the request of the wife’s half brothers.
The 34-year-old woman, Fatima, mother of two children by her marriage to Mansour Al-Timani, 37, has been in a prison in Dammam since October with her youngest child, Suleiman, a year old.
She has steadily refused to return to the custody of her family since she was arrested in Jeddah for living with the man she legally married with her father’s consent more than three years ago. The older child, Noha, 2, is in her father’s custody and occasionally visits her mother in prison.

Prison officials have prevented Mansour from talking to Fatima since her interview with this newspaper in November. He told Arab News yesterday that he would continue to fight the ruling even though the judiciary has given its final verdict.

Fatima’s lawyer, Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, issued a statement yesterday, saying the ruling “contradicts both Islamic principles and (secular) laws and also abrogates a very basic human right: the wife’s wish to stay by her husband’s side.”

Fatima’s half-brother contends that Mansour misled the family about his tribal background to win the family’s consent for marrying his sister. Shariah law (Islamic law) does not prohibit a woman from marrying a man based on tribal background; therefore Islamic law, which is the law of the Kingdom, does not prohibit such a marriage.

Mansour has repeatedly denied that he lied about his tribal background. “They (Fatima’s male relatives) asked about me and even came to visit me at my work in Al-Jouf where I lived at the time,” he said in a previous interview with Arab News. Fatima’s father has since passed away, leaving his sons with power of attorney which they used to ask for the divorce. Al-Lahem said that the decision of the appeals court, known in Saudi Arabia as the Court of Cassation, is final.

In an interview with Arab News in November, Fatima said she was remaining in prison by her own choice; she refused to return to the custody of her family. (Women of any age in Saudi Arabia require a legal male guardian, or mahram, who could be either their husbands or other male relatives.) “I’m leaving this place on one condition only: That I go back to my husband,” she told Arab News.

Al-Lahem says Fatima’s case is an affront to women’s rights under Islamic law as well as international human rights agreements to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory. “The Shariah law can rely on the normal custom of society in the absence of a clear Islamic law,” Al-Lahem said, and added that the judge placed Saudi tribal traditions over Islamic law in this case and that Islamic law would have prohibited such an intervention by the wife’s family.

The lawyer contends that the ruling has set a dangerous precedent.

“Such behavior can damage the social harmony (established under Islamic principles),” he said.

Mansour said that even if Fatima were to leave prison, the couple would not be able to remarry because she would be in the custody of her half-brothers — her mahram — who sought the divorce in the first place. He said he might have to take custody of their son, Suleiman, because he fears for the children’s safety at the hands of Fatima’s family. “Who can assure me of the safety of my children with them?”

He continued: “I don’t want to take him from his mother, but I don’t trust her family.” He said if they didn’t like his tribal affiliation they might mistreat his children. “They look down upon them as inferiors.”

For the time being, the ruling is final and Fatima is still in an Eastern Province prison with her baby son. Mansour says he feels lost. “What can I do? There is absolutely nothing that I can do?” he said. “Our country is against us and I can’t fight the whole country.”

Ebtihal Mubarak, Arab News, 29 January 2007