I have two sons. They have never met face to face. Never tickled, giggled, wrestled on the floor, thrown a ball, or played a prank or peek-a-boo. They have T-shirts that say “big brother” and “little brother.” They know each other’s nicknames and that they have similar eyes. They know that they share the same mom. And I know that the only way I can wrap my arms around one is to leave the other.
Mine is not, on paper, an unusual situation. I married a man, had a child, got divorced. Several years passed, I moved, remarried, and had another child. Women, and men do it all the time. The difference is that I am a Saudi woman, born into a kingdom of men, and forced out not because of my divorce, but because I took a stand.
In May 2011, I drove a car on Saudi roads, with my brother beside me and my sister-in-law, her baby and my son, Aboudi, in the back seat. In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to drive.
I was arrested and spent nine days in prison. At the time, I was a working, divorced mother. As a result of my protest, I was threatened — imams wanted me to be publicly lashed — and monitored and harassed. I was pushed out of my job. After that, I had to move from my home. Without a safe place to work or live, with other Saudis calling for my death, I had no choice but to leave the only country I had ever known. The hardest part was leaving behind Aboudi, who was then 6 and a half years old.
I had driven with the hope of freeing women in Saudi society — and by freeing women, I also hoped to free men. I had driven so that Aboudi might know a better life. Instead, my protest accelerated our separation.
Divorce is common in Saudi Arabia. According to recent numbers from the Saudi General Authority of Statistics, about one-third of all couples divorce. Or, as the Arab News put it, there are at least five divorces every hour of every day.
In a divorce, Saudi fathers retain all legal custody of children and all rights to the marital home. They’re granted full physical custody for girls at age 7 and often for boys at age 9; even though Aboudi was only 6, I couldn’t take him with me because his father retained legal custody. Since Saudi women must have a designated male guardian, divorced women are made to return to their father’s or another male relative’s home. Across the kingdom, mothers fight back tears as they are forced to leave the children they have raised and the homes where their babies took their first steps and said their first prayers.
As I packed my books, clothes and a few dishes to move to Dubai, which borders the eastern tip of Saudi Arabia, the thing I wanted most I could not take with me: the small corner of the universe Aboudi and I shared.
I had hoped that my son would visit me, but my ex-husband changed his mind. The only way I could see Aboudi was to fly back to Saudi Arabia every other weekend. I did, of course. But I had no place to stay. At the time, many hotels refused to allow a Saudi woman to stay alone in a room without permission from a man. So for those precious weekends, I returned to my ex-mother-in-law’s house, the house where my marriage had fractured and broken and where more times than I care to remember, my own body had been struck and bruised.
My ex-husband has remarried and has two daughters. Aboudi now lives with his grandmother, my ex-mother-in-law; it has become her job to raise him. I used to know everything about my son: his favorite food, color, game and movie; what he liked to wear, his latest tricks, his best friend’s name. But he has become more and more of a stranger to me. I have to ask his grandmother who his new friends are, what he likes to eat, when he last went swimming.
I hired a lawyer to contest the premise that I could not have my son visit me in Dubai. The verdict was no. The court cited a 10th-century Islamic text, from the time of camels and caravans traveling across hot desert sands, and noted the “risk of the child dying en route on such a dangerous distance.” The trip from Dammam, where he lives in Saudi Arabia, to Dubai is one hour by plane.
And then in 2014, my second son was born.
A man who loved me had proposed, and we were married — not in Saudi Arabia or in Dubai, but by a civil marriage from a law court in Canada. Under Saudi rules, a woman (or a Saudi man) cannot marry a non-Saudi without official permission, and my planned marriage did not pass whatever test was applied. Because my marriage is not recognized, neither is my second child. The government will not grant him a visa.
When he was 6, Aboudi had asked me for a brother. He wanted to name him “Hamza,” which means courageous lion. This baby is Daniel Hamza, a great irony since in religious texts it was Daniel who survived the lions’ den. My curious, noisy, mischievous younger son has never seen my homeland. He knows his big brother only through photos and from waving at each other on screens.
I love my sons, I love my husband, and I love my country. But in kingdoms of men, there are few — if any — choices for women. Or the choices are such that there is no greater pain than having to choose.
I have been jailed. I have been strip-searched. I have pressed my face against heavy metal bars, against the Plexiglass divide in a visitor’s waiting room. I slept on the prison’s filthy mattresses. Inside, other mothers had their babies. All day long, I listened to their gurgles and cries. As horrible as it was for me, at least those mothers were on the same side of the prison walls with their children. I am now on the outside, but I do not yet know how to free myself from the bars that still separate my children.
Manal al-Sharif is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”