Saudi Arabian court denies woman custody of daughter because of her Western lifestyle

Bethany Vierra has been denied custody of her daughter Zeina.
Bethany Vierra has been denied custody of her daughter Zeina. Photo credit: Facebook / Myron Vierra

A Saudi Arabian court has denied a woman custody of her child because she was deemed 'too Western'.

American Bethany Vierra, 32, moved to the ultra-conservative Muslim country to take up a teaching role at a university in 2011. She married a Saudi man and the couple had a daughter named Zeina.

Vierra recently divorced her husband and sought custody of Zeina, now four years old. She claimed her unnamed former husband was abusive, and submitted video evidence to the court that showed him smoking hashish and verbally abusing her in front of their daughter.

But in July a Saudi judge denied Vierra custody, instead awarding custody of Zeina to her paternal grandmother - who lives with Vierra's ex-husband. 

Divorce under Sharia law dictates that mothers retain custody of their sons until the age of nine and daughters until the age of seven, but fathers remain their legal guardians. In 2018 the Saudi government announced new laws that meant mothers retain parental custody without having to file a lawsuit, unless the father also wants custody.

Of greatest priority to Saudi courts is making sure children are raised in the Islamic faith. Vierra's ex-husband argued she was an unfit mother because of her Western lifestyle, submitting photos to the court of her wearing a bikini and with her hair uncovered. He also mentioned 'un-Islamic' social media posts, the yoga studio she runs and the fact she once attended the Burning Man festival as evidence she didn't deserve custody.

The Saudi court system, in accordance with Sharia law, treats a woman's testimony as worth half that of a man's. Vierra told the New York Times her own testimony had been dismissed by the court because she had no male witnesses to back her up.

"They wouldn't in some cases even look at the evidence that I had. It was just completely disregarded because [her ex-husband] 'swore to God'. It's all been infuriating."

In his ruling, Judge Abdul-Ellah ibn Mohammed al-Tuwaijri explicitly cited Vierra's Western lifestyle as one of the reasons he denied her custody.

"The mother is new to Islam, is a foreigner in this country, and continues to definitively embrace the customs and traditions of her upbringing," he wrote. 

"We must avoid exposing [Zeina] to these customs and traditions, especially at this early age."

It's not yet known if Vierra will appeal the decision, but her mother Myron Vierra told CNN she "won't give up" on getting Zeina back.

"We also realise that she may lose her life doing this, or we may never see her again."

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