JEDDAH, 7 March 2007 — Mohammed Noor Baksh, a 60-year-old Pakistani driver, has been married to a Saudi woman for 27 years and hasn’t traveled outside the Kingdom for the past 15 years.
He has two daughters — one 21-year-old and the other 19-year-old — and a 14-year-old son. When he tried getting his children Saudi nationality, he hit a snag.
Baksh’s son wasn’t the problem: When he turns 18 he can apply for citizenship with a strong likelihood of eventually being granted citizenship as the male offspring of a Saudi woman. The girls, however, are barred from the same process, jeopardizing their access to social benefits accorded to Saudi citizens. To get citizenship, Baksh was told they would need to marry Saudis.
“I applied to the Department of Civil Affairs in Makkah and Jeddah to obtain for my children and myself Saudi citizenship, but my attempts failed,” he said. “They told me that my daughters could get citizenship only if they marry Saudi men and because I don’t have a degree I can’t become Saudi.”
Recently the Shoura Council approved legislation granting citizenship to foreign-born women married to Saudi men, as well as widows of deceased Saudis. The law does not include Saudi women married to foreigners, so the hurdles for Saudi women obtaining citizenship for the children of their foreign husbands continue.
Abul Khal, a Saudi columnist, asked the obvious question in his Oct. 11 column in the Okaz newspaper: “Why doesn’t the law treat Saudi women equally with Saudi men?”
Khal continued, “Saudi men married to non-Saudis receive so much attention and have more prerogatives. ... Problems of Saudi women married to non-Saudis have never been discussed in a way that finds suitable solutions.”
Intermarriages between Saudis and non-Saudis often occur without consideration of the legal and cultural complexities that sometimes end up revoking such marriages.
A non-Saudi has to apply for a marriage permit to marry a Saudi woman. Relevant official documents, medical records, passport, identification letter and the marriage request must be submitted to the Interior Ministry to issue the marriage permit. Only after this permit is issued can the marriage legally take place.
Article 6 of the Saudi intermarriage by-law states: “Any Saudi man/woman who desires to marry a non-Saudi woman/man must have acceptable character, nationality and religion, excluding people belonging to beliefs not approved by the Shariah.”
Noran N., a 26-year-old Saudi woman working and living in Cairo is engaged to Mostafa M., a 26-year-old Egyptian. The couple applied for a marriage permit at the cultural attaché’s office at the Saudi Embassy in Egypt. After two months of waiting, their application was rejected without clear justification. They were told later by an embassy official that they need to address a higher authority if they wanted to obtain the marriage authorization paper.
Saeed ibn Naser Al-Huresen, a 27-year-old Saudi legal adviser, said that there are few conditions that govern granting the marriage permit.
“The Saudi woman has to be at least 29 or 30 years old to obtain the permit when considering marrying a non-Saudi,” said Al-Huresen. “In other words, she should be a spinster not highly desired by Saudi suitors. In case the woman is divorced, her chances are much better in acquiring the marriage permit.”
Al-Huresen also said that non-Saudi men that have lived in the Kingdom for at least five years and are related in some way to their would-be Saudi brides have an easier time obtaining marriage permits. (For example, if the non-Saudi man has a cousin that is already married to a relative of the Saudi woman’s family, the permit is easier to obtain.)
“Legal procedures to acquire the permit are usually easier when the man comes from a Gulf country,” said Al-Huresen, adding that even if the father is Saudi then girls have a harder time getting their citizenship.
“Male children can apply for Saudi citizenship when they turn 18,” he said. “Applications are submitted to the Civil Affairs Department at the Interior Ministry and they will look into the matter. As for women, they are given a special ID card that facilitates their legal and official procedures within the country but they can’t acquire the Saudi citizenship.”
For these girls, their only recourse is, again, to find a Saudi man to marry in order to get citizenship.
Meanwhile, it appears that the number of Saudi women seeking to marry foreigners is on the rise. Alarabiya.net reported in May that an official involved in marriage authorizations in Riyadh said the number of requests from Saudis women, especially doctors and academics, wanting to marry non-Saudis has increased. Ahmed Al-Rubaian said there was a need to expedite such requests due to a backlog.
Huda, a 27-year-old Saudi woman, is married to a 26-year-old Syrian-Canadian. When they went in 2003 to obtain their Saudi marriage permit, she said it took months. Eventually, she said they had to pay a bribe to obtain permission.
“My husband had to go through lots of hassles to get the permit,” she said. “And though it wasn’t said officially, there was a lot of money involved.”
Huda said her husband had to pay SR40,000 ($10,667) to get the authorization. Today, the couple is happily married with a toddler boy who won’t be eligible for Saudi citizenship until he turns 18. Huda says she has no regrets in her decision to marry a non-Saudi.
“Marrying a non-Saudi from my own experience gives women in the Kingdom a better chance to get married,” she said. “Many Saudi men are not willing or can’t handle marital responsibilities.”
Ghassan Al-Gain, a 50-year-old Islamic scholar, endorses intermarriages when the bride and her family consent. “As long as the bride and her family approve of the suitor, his nationality is not a concern,” he said.
Al-Gain said that Shariah allows for the rulers of Islamic countries to design a system “to avoid experiencing difficult situations.”
He said, “However, governments have the right to constrain and codify certain rulings that are permissible in Shariah. ... With Saudis marrying non-Saudis, problems tend to be more complicated because of the regulations and procedures of different countries.”
But do the regulation themselves create the complications? Whatever the case may be, it appears that cultural issues are also at play.
Roa’a, a local monthly magazine, reported in September that the idea of a Saudi woman marrying a non-Saudi man is still considered a taboo, but not so much when a Saudi man marries a foreigner.
Cultural differences may also play an important factor in resistance to Saudi women marrying out, especially in marriages with non-Arabs, whose cultural backgrounds can be radically different.
Amira Kashgary, a Saudi columnist at Al-Watan daily, commenting on the idea of intermarriages said: “Saudi society is conservative and closed. Women, sisters, daughters and wives don’t possess freedom to make these choices. It’s a male-dominant society so this reflects on the woman’s legal and personal rights and choices. A Saudi woman marrying a non-Saudi is still unacceptable as a natural response to the woman’s status in the community.”
Kashgary pointed out that when marriages between Saudis and non-Saudis collapse due to cultural or other incompatibilities, it affirms the image that these types of marriages are ill advised, thus decreasing popular support for the type of marriage. This is further exacerbated by citizenship hurdles that ostensibly discourage Saudis from marrying non-Saudis in general.
It appears that among many Arab countries women are not granted equal rights to citizenship. The Women’s Learning Partnership is trying to stand in solidarity with partners in the Middle East and Gulf regions to call for women’s equal citizenship rights, including equal rights to confer nationality to spouses and children. In counties like Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco and Jordan, Iran and the Gulf region, only men have the legal right to confer nationality to non-national spouses and children.
In Algeria, the nationality law has already been reformed to allow women to confer their nationality to their spouses and children, and in Egypt, reform enables women to confer nationality to their children only.
“These modifications came along as part of a reform campaign concerning women’s issues and problems in the society,” writes Aziza Al-Manie in her article published in Okaz daily on Oct. 18. “Change didn’t come easily. The Egyptian woman had to struggle and fight for many years claiming to change the unfair laws that discriminate against granting her husband and children the citizenship equally to the man.”
While the Shoura Council decision was a welcome message to foreign women married to Saudi men, Saudi women are still denied the right to get citizenship for their children. Until the Shoura addresses this issue, these children will not be entitled to the social benefits their peers enjoy — all because their Saudi mothers dared to marry non-Saudi men.