Forced Marriage Overseas: Saudi Arabia
Individuals from the United States will likely face serious hurdles and substantial risks if trying to avoid and/or escape a marriage in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom’s governance through a highly conservative interpretation of Islamic Shari’ah law, and recognition of male guardianship over both adult and minor females, severely limits the rights and options of women and girls in country. Despite slowly moving efforts to increase protections for Saudi women and girls, violence against women and forced marriage remains a serious problem.
For further information and guidance for individuals from the US that are facing or fleeing a forced marriage in Saudi Arabia, please contact the Forced Marriage Initiative.
Marriage in Saudi Arabia
Girls and women in Saudi Arabia have few rights when entering into or dissolving a marriage. Saudi Arabia does not have codified laws on marriage and divorce, and family law is governed by Shari’ah law as interpreted and administered by the Ministry of Justice.1 There is no minimum age of marriage, and while there have been some recent efforts to set the age of consent at 18, such reforms have long been opposed by those that believe it would violate Shari’ah law.2 Valid marriages in Saudi Arabia require both written and verbal consent from both the bride and groom,3 but male guardians can consent to a marriage on behalf of a girl or woman.4 This strict system of male guardianship, along with other factors – such as fear of repercussions for bringing “dishonor” upon one’s family name, and the economic need of brides’ families to collect a dowry – can make women and girls reluctant to oppose or try to leave a marriage.5 Although Saudi religious leaders have denounced forced marriages,6 there are few protections against such situations. Child marriage also continues to be prevalent in rural areas.7
While there are some limited options for pursuing annulment and divorce, women generally need consent of their male guardian to pursue these options and require male witnesses to testify and support a woman’s petition in court.
Potential Risks and Protections in Saudi Arabia
It is unlikely that current Saudi laws and judicial remedies could adequately protect an individual who is facing a forced marriage. While Saudi Arabia passed a new Law on Protection from Abuse in 2013, it appears that the law has not yet been implemented,8 and spousal abuse is widespread and may be acutely under-reported.9 Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system makes it very difficult for the victim of domestic violence to report or escape abuse. Women cannot easily travel along, and women in Saudi Arabia are prohibited from driving, making it extremely challenging for victims to leave the home or get to supportive services.10
Law enforcement has generally treated domestic violence situations as private, domestic matters with few legal consequences for the perpetrators, and courts are lenient in cases when abuse was perpetrated by a male against a female in the same household.11
Special Challenges in Returning to the United States
Women and girls from the United States attempting to exit Saudi Arabia may face significant hurdles. Women and children who are considered members of a Saudi household (including adult U.S.-citizen women married to Saudi men, adult U.S.-citizen women who are the unmarried daughters of Saudi fathers, children born to Saudi fathers, and U.S.-citizen boys under the age of 21 who are the sons of Saudi fathers) must have the permission of the Saudi male head of their household to leave Saudi Arabia. If a couple consisting of a foreigner and a Saudi living in Saudi Arabia divorce, the foreign parent cannot under any circumstances leave the country with the children born of their union even if he or she is granted custody rights.13
Since February 20, 2008, a regulation has been in place requiring Saudi men to sign a document giving irrevocable permission to their foreign wives and the children born of their union to travel in and out of the country without restrictions. However, in practice, even with such documentation, foreign spouses and their children may still have difficulty exiting Saudi Arabia.14 Women may also face arrest if traveling with a man who is not her husband, sponsor, or relative.15 Please check the entry and exit requirements for Saudi Arabia for the most up to date information.
Assistance for Individuals from the United States
- The Tahirih Justice Center Forced Marriage Initiative
We are available to help individuals from the United States who are facing or fleeing forced marriage in Saudi Arabia, including providing phone, text, and email support, connecting with the U.S. government and local resources, and coordinating shelter and services back in the United States.
- The U.S. State Department
The State Department is available to assist U.S. citizens that are victims of forced marriage with replacement of travel documents and return travel to the United States. However, U.S. government help may be extremely limited given the strict laws and lack of rights and protections for women in country.For updated information and travel alerts, please visit the department’s webpage on international travel in Saudi Arabia.
- U.S. Embassy Riyadh
Contact the embassy in the case of an emergency.
1 Council on Foreign Relations, Islam: Governing Under Sharia (2013) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
2 Saudi Arabia to Set Minimum Marriage Age Following Surge in Such Weddings, Al Arabiya News (July 25, 2011).
3 Islamic Question and Answers – You wanted to know about Islam, (2013) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
4 Equality Now, Saudi Arabia: Women under Perpetual Guardianship of Male Relatives (2010) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
5 Why Islam, Gender Equity in Islam (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
6 Saudi Arabia bans forced marriage, BBC News (April 12, 2005) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
7 U.S. Department of State, Saudi Arabia 2012 Human Rights Report (2012), (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
8 Afshan Aziz, Domestic violence, a large hidden issue, Arab News (January 7, 2013) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014). Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia: New Law to Criminalize Domestic Abuse, (September 3, 2013) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014). Arab News, King Khaled Foundation receives EU rights award (2013), (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
9 U.S. Department of State, Saudi Arabia 2012 Human Rights Report (2012) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
11 Rini Sampath, Rape of Saudi Arabian girl instigates outrage, Daily Trojan (2013) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
12 U.S. Passports & International Travel, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Saudi Arabia – Entry, Exit & Visa Requirements (2013) (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).
15 Jean Mann, Women Traveling in Saudi Arabia, USA Today (last visited Mar. 24, 2014).