Saudi couple victim of rise in 'forced divorce'

Fatima al-Timani is facing the end of her sixth month in prison in the Saudi town of Damman. Her only crime is to refuse to be separated from the man to whom she had been happily married for the past four years and with whom she has two children.

Fatima is the latest victim of a growing practice in the oil-rich Saudi kingdom of forced divorce, when disgruntled relatives have used hardline Islamic courts to dissolve matches against the will of the married couple.

The plight of 34-year-old Fatima, who was pregnant when court proceedings began in 2005 and is now in prison with her one-year-old son, Suleiman, has drawn widespread public sympathy in the tightly controlled kingdom.

Fatima is forbidden from seeing her husband, Mansour al-Timani. He now looks after their two-year old-son Noha, who has only been allowed occasional visits to his mother. Fatima's relatives have accused Mansour of lying about his tribal background to win their father's approval for the marriage and want it annulled so she can have an arranged marriage to a spouse of their choosing.

She was arrested in October of last year in the city of Jeddah and charged with living illegally with Mansour. The couple's efforts to be reunited suffered a further setback this month when an appeals court in the capital, Riyadh, upheld the original ruling forcing the divorce.

Mansour said he will not accept the appeals court ruling and that he still considers Fatima his wife."This ruling is a non-Islamic one and, therefore, I refuse to acknowledge it," he said.

"If her family wants to marry her to another man while we both still consider ourselves married then there is nothing I can do about it. But God will be our judge."

A human rights activist, Fawziya Al-Ouyoni, one of the women behind a petition calling on Saudi's King Abdullah to personally intervene said: "When the divorce is carried out with the couple's approval then this is just the way it happens all over the world. But when the divorce is forced on the couple with an order from a high court then that is a massive disaster."

Saudi Arabia has possibly the worst record on women's rights of any country. The kingdom has been ruled since the 1920s by the House of Saud whose clerical allies, the Wahhabists, have imposed an austere state faith on what had been a religiously diverse mixture of Muslims with Sunni, Shia and Sufi communities.

Under Wahhabi rule, women have no voting rights, almost no employment rights and are barred from even driving.

Despite a concerted effort to present a more reformist image to the outside world since the death of King Fahd in August 2005, rights groups have noted continuing erosions of human rights under his successor Abdullah. Dr Irfan Al Alawi a British Muslim and director for The Centre for Islamic Pluralism based in London, said that the case was not an isolated incident and that as many as 19 forced divorces were working their way through the courts.

The case of Rania Albou-Enin, a 27-year-old Saudi physician has caused particular concern. In her last month of pregnancy, she is anxiously awaiting an appeals court decision in a case of forced divorce brought by he father.

Her husband, Saud Al-Khaledi, is being held in a police jail in Alkhobar, according to her lawyer Ibrahim Al-Behairi. Rania, who had been paying all her family's bills, has claimed she was beaten by one of her brothers and that the family brought the case to ensure they would not lose their main breadwinner.

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