“Terrifying,” “enraging,” and “overwhelming” is how Bethany Alhaidari described the prospect of sending her 8-year-old back to Saudi Arabia after the mother-daughter duo fled the kingdom four years ago.
The 36-year-old American activist from Washington state made headlines back in 2019 when she escaped the kingdom with her daughter Zaina after going through a contentious divorce, losing a grueling custody battle, and being placed under a travel ban for violating the visitation rights of her ex-husband.
Left with few options under the kingdom’s custody laws, Alhaidari said she hatched a plan which she viewed as her only shot of getting out with Zaina: pretending to “get back together” with her allegedly abusive ex-husband until he felt comfortable enough to let her travel with their child. According to Alhaidari, the plan worked, and she was able to leave the kingdom with her daughter in December 2019, under the guise of visiting her parents in Washington state—where she immediately filed for emergency jurisdiction.
But her risky getaway was far from the end of the nightmare ordeal. Another custody battle for Zaina is currently playing out on U.S. soil—and it culminates in a hearing on Oct. 24 that could end in a court ruling that the child must be sent back to Saudi Arabia, as first reported by The Guardian.
“It is so egregious to me. And it’s so ridiculous that it can actually get to this point, and I don’t think people realize over the years, the mental toll, and the like, emotional toll that this has taken,” Alhaidari told The Daily Beast in an interview this week. “This has been my reality for several years now… it’s almost comical.”
The activist, who first moved to Saudi Arabia in 2012 to pursue academic research before meeting her ex-husband there, said she knew the divorce and ensuing custody battle in the kingdom would be an uphill battle as soon as her marriage fell apart. That said, “I didn’t think it would be that bad, because of how much evidence was on record of my ex-husband’s issues.”
In U.S. court filings reviewed by The Daily Beast, Alhaidari had alleged that her ex-husband, a Saudi national, “began exhibiting signs of emotional instability, emotional abuse, and substance abuse” during her pregnancy with Zaina, which ultimately escalated into “rampages” that included, “screaming insults, breaking objects, and threatening to kill Bethany in front of her daughter.” (Bethany said she had sent video footage capturing some of those “rampages” to a Saudi judge during their custody trial, which she claims were dismissed altogether.)
“I still remember being super upset with the judge at the end of that case, because in the beginning, I didn’t have legal representation. So it was just me. And I just remember going through this terrible, terribly unjust [saga] …egregiously discriminatory on the basis of gender,” she told The Daily Beast. “The court proceedings in Saudi had no rhyme or reason. They didn’t even follow their own legal procedures. So I had filed an appeal in Saudi Arabia, and it was completely derailed, and I was forced to settle.”
For Alhaidari, it’s not just the risk of having to separate from her daughter that’s at stake in the Oct. 24 court hearing. Last month, Human Rights Watch submitted an amicus brief in the case that warned of the potential threat to the activist should she have to accompany Zaina to Saudi Arabia if the court rules against her.
“Discrimination in the context of child custody remains deeply entrenched in Saudi Arabia. As a result, Bethany is likely to face discriminatory judgments as well as a significant risk of prosecution for her peaceful advocacy and allegations of blasphemy, apostasy, and ‘moral’ crimes,” the briefing states, referring to Alhaidari’s advocacy work and allegations her ex-husband made against her during their legal battles in the kingdom. “This will leave Bethany vulnerable to ill treatment in detention, an unfair trial, a lengthy prison sentence, and the risk of corporal punishment and the death penalty, all of which will affect her child.”
Alhaidari has long been critical of the Saudi regime and its treatment of women in the kingdom, and has continued her activism in the U.S. as a senior fellow at the Human Rights Foundation, among other advocacy groups. Pursuing that kind of work in the kingdom was “a really hard time,” she said. “I watched my friends and colleagues as I was doing human rights research be detained, tortured, and go to jail.”
In the lead-up to the court hearing next month, Alhaidari said she was trying to protect her daughter from the emotional and mental toll of the custody battle, adding that friends of Zaina from school have been talking about the case in front of the 8-year-old.
“It’s hard for her because she is old enough to understand things, right? She’s trying to express on multiple occasions that she doesn’t want to go to Saudi, and she’s refused to talk to her dad for several months now. And it’s really hard. It’s really hard for her,” she said. “I’ve kind of been a single parent since she was born. You know, she and I have lived on our own since she was 2 years old, after we separated.”
“She has the freedom to be what she wants to be right now,” Alhaidari added. “And that’s really important to me.”