Accompanied by her father, Hassna’a Mokhtar went to the Saudi Arabian interior ministry in Jeddah to sign papers for a marriage licence. She was hoping to get a sense of how long it would take to get permission, so that she could plan her wedding. But that was not the case. A Saudi woman falling in love with a non-Saudi Muslim leads to more obstacles than a Capulet falling in love with a Montague. In most parts of society, a father can decline a suitor simply because he is not a Saudi.
The tribal mentality has changed, at least to some degree, among the middle and upper classes. But even if the father consents, the Saudi government makes it arduous for the couple to proceed with the marriage.
All Saudi men and women must obtain a permission to marry a non-Saudi Muslim before marriage (nikkah). And there is one set of rules for men and another for women. “Why is it so difficult to get the permit?” Mokhtar asked the female officer at the interior ministry. “The country wants to protect you,” she recalls the officer responding. The officer told Mokhtar that she, too, wanted to marry a non-Saudi Muslim but would have to resign from her government job to do so.
Mokhtar, now 32, was ready to marry, but faced many hurdles. She applied for the marriage license in June 2007 and finally received it a year later. “They [the Saudi government] are not going to solve the problem by forcing men or women to marry another Saudi,” said Mokhtar. “They should leave the choices open.”
When she finally did get married, it was the beginning of another set of problems. In that, she is not alone. Her husband was not automatically eligible for a residency permit (iqamah). He can visit her in Saudi Arabia on a visa that can be extended up to two months, on which he can neither work nor own a car or a property. And there is no set of procedures for obtaining residency; it could take months if you know someone who can get it done through the back door, or it could take years.
“How could we have a stable life and start to build our life together, if he has to hop back and forth?” asked Mokhtar, who wants to live in Saudi Arabia with her husband. This way she can remain in touch with her 12-year-old son from a Saudi ex-husband. Each time the visa was about to expire, her 32-year-old husband, who is vice-president of a digital marketing company, flew back to Canada, leaving her alone for months to prepare yet again for a visit visa. This went on for two years. What otherwise could have been a joyous married life turned out to be financially draining and emotionally traumatic for the couple. “I appreciate that he gave up two years of his life to be with me, now it was my turn to move to his country, if I want this marriage to work,” said Mokhtar.
Leaving behind her parents and her son, Mokhtar has now moved to Montreal, where the residency procedure for her, as a wife of a Canadian, is well defined. In Saudi Arabia, she relied on clandestine operators to speed the process in return for SR40,000 (about ₤7000) – but that didn’t work, because it was merely an attempt to profit from her misery.
She questions the apparent unfairness of certain policies that discourage women from marrying non-Saudis. “When a Saudi man is granted the marriage license from the interior ministry, he is automatically granted a residence permit for his wife. And, after some years of marriage, she gets to become a Saudi [citizen]. So I don’t understand why the same rule is not applied to a Saudi-woman marrying a non-Saudi?”
The officer Mokhtar spoke to at the interior ministry told her that each day six or seven Saudi women apply for a licence to marry a non-Saudi, and all would like to see the process eased. So why isn’t it? The Islamic creed gives women the right to choose a spouse and makes no distinction between a Saudi and a non-Saudi Muslim. In his last sermon, the prophet Muhammad said: “Arab has no superiority over non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any over an Arab … except by piety and good action.” It is evident that these practices are not in sync with the equality Islam espouses.
As for Mokhtar, she hopes to return to the kingdom with her husband once he is granted a residence permit. Though she is with her husband who loves her, she misses her son. The ordeal continues.
Fahad Faruqui is a freelance writer and a TV/Radio presenter. He read Philosophy of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies as an undergraduate at Columbia University and then pursued M.S. in Journalism from its Graduate School of Journalism. He also studied classical Arabic in Jordan. This article was previously published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.