Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Saudi/non-Saudi Students: Marriage and The Marriage Permission Process--Part I Ellen

By Chiara



As students Ellen of Australia (and of the excellent blog Steadily Emerging with Grace) and M of Saudi (now a student in Australia) approach graduation and a new phase in their relationship, they have agreed to tell their personal stories in order to share their journey, and to gain some guidance from the expertise of readers. Here, in their own words, and with some questions for readers, are Ellen in Part I, and M in Part II.

Ellen's Story


I was born and raised in Western Australia until I was 8. Both of my parents were present until that age, then they separated and my mother moved us (my brother and I) over to NSW which is the other side of the country. It wasn’t difficult for me at the time (I don’t remember thinking about it that much at that age), but looking back I know that was only because my grandfather became like a father figure to me. He was also the one who gave the stamp of approval for M and I.

I suppose the ethnic and religious identity of my family would be WASPs, Protestant Christians, but none of them, save my grandmother, were practicing. My own religious evolution started when I was about 13 or 14, when I decided to be confirmed into the Anglican Church. This was first and foremost something for my grandmother and then I guess after that I started to really think about my new identity as a Christian. I was fine like that for about 3 years. I was about 17 when I started to study Islam. I never questioned Christianity - I still don't. While now I've come to terms with the fact that it might not be for me, I still don't doubt that it is a religion of truth for many people including some members of my family. I don't know what I'd call myself now. I’ve incorporated more Islamic practices and beliefs into my life so I don’t think I’ve completed my evolution.


I met M while he was in a home-stay that was run by my mother's friend. I remember trying to catch his eye and then not getting any “signals” so to speak! Then again, before M I had had no experience with guys whatsoever. My birthday was the week after that (he must have heard about it from the host mother) and he bought me some candles. That was probably how we both knew that something was “brewing”.

I'm not quite sure how our relationship developed to be honest. After we met, both of us spent time away from each other (I was visiting Western Aus and M was back in Saudi Arabia) so I guess it developed with a lot of phone conversations and MSN! Somehow it did evolve into a committed relationship and we have had an Islamic marriage for almost two years now. That was our only option at the time, as M is a Saudi government scholarship student. We still can’t make it fully legal yet as students on a scholarship, as M is, run the high risk of their scholarship being canceled if they marry legally.


I’m very happy we chose to have an Islamic form of marriage, without a full legalization because although the maternal half of my family accepts the idea that this man is my life partner, my father, and his side of the family still find it hard. So going into a legal marriage head on may have really damaged any chances M and I had at getting him and them on our side.

Gosh, hahah. I still have trouble believing that we actually got married. We just had two of M's friends as witnesses and it was in their apartment. I remember thinking “Was that it??”, but I checked with scholars and we did it the right way, and that’s what matters to me. It was in Sydney so we all went to dinner. My mahr was a ring that I always wear.

Our relationship didn't change at all after marriage to be honest. The only difference then was that I think it became more important for his family to know. Now, I’d say our relationship together has improved for the better. We know each other better.

As for future marriage plans, I know what I’d hope for – two weddings, one here in Australia, and one either in Saudi (insha’Allah) or Bahrain. That would be the ideal for us. Right now we’re waiting on the end of year results (as M is supposed to graduate this year) so we’ll only know for sure after that whether M will be finished with his studies and scholarship needs.


We are in Australia at the moment, and after I finish my degree (in another 2 years) we will probably move to wherever M gets the best job, whether that's somewhere here or in the Middle East. Seriously considering the option to live in Saudi was a massive decision. When we first entertained the idea, about a year ago, I remember being very optimistic about it. Then M told me about the persecution that Shia Muslims face in Saudi Arabia. That made it difficult to make the decision – if we had children, what would happen to them? Would they go through what M, for example, has been through? After that, I thought a lot more. I think that I really decided that living there was an option after meeting M’s family. That took away my doubts.

The meeting with M’s family was wonderful. I couldn't have hoped for it to turn out any better! I think M's mum summed it up when she said to a friend of mine: "I used to have two daughters and now I have three". I think that my family suddenly realized that moving to Saudi Arabia was actually a real possibility. Like me, they hadn't realized that that could actually happen. In terms of M and I, there has been a very positive impact. Alhamdulillah his family have accepted me and our relationship, so that has made things between us a lot easier in terms of not carrying any weight on our shoulders!


I guess my own challenges about living in Saudi would be what every woman faces there - getting a job and keeping some sense of independence. I think it would also be a challenge making friends, which is half the reason I visit sites like this blog: because going there thinking “Hey, at least there is a girl who runs a blog who’s getting through it” means that I’m not alone.

M and I have discussed various options regarding employment. I am studying Politics at the moment but will also take a certificate in TESOL after my degree so I will hopefully have more options. We have planned for me to begin working from home if I can’t find something straightaway. As for the independence, I think that will be okay. Bahrain was our trial run, in a sense, in terms of me taking in the sort of environment I’ll be in.

God Willing, we will have children! Raising them, though, that will definitely be a lot harder, as they will have two very different cultures around them. Insha’Allah we will raise them in a family environment, with them having lots of contact with M (as that wasn't something I had with my own father growing up). Insha’Allah they will be raised knowing that they are strong and independent human beings.


I would like to let other couples know that coping with the extended Saudi family won't be that hard if you have his immediate family with you. After all, when you meet the immediate family, they are the ones who will be talking about you to members of the extended family. Their opinion of you matters. BUT it is also not the end of the world if initially, it's a bit hard. Thank God I didn't have that problem when we physically met but I know that in the beginning, it was hard for them to accept us. So it's not abnormal for them to second guess you. I think the most important thing is to take it easy and not to stress. Think about how you’d feel in their situation, but don’t forget that you’re a good person. Be yourself. Don't pretend to be someone that you're not. If you're not religious, don't pretend to be. If you are, don't over-do it to get them to like you. Just be natural. It's easier said than done, but it's important that the struggles you might face don't take a toll on your relationship.


Questions for Readers

To respect our privacy, I won't say how old M and I are (got to keep some things secret) but neither of us is near the 35 years old "approval" age. We know that being younger than that will probably slow down the marriage permission process a lot, but we're trying to be optimistic. I guess I'd like to ask how old any of the readers were/are when their permission was granted, and how old they were/are when they applied?

Should we start with the Saudi Embassy in Australia?

What main differences can I expect between what I saw of life in Bahrain, and life in the nearby Eastern Province, or the rest of Saudi?


Any other recommendations for Ellen and M on how to best carry out the marriage permission process in their circumstances?

What can they do now to facilitate an eventual transition to life in Saudi Arabia?


Any other comments, thoughts, or similar experiences?

*Ellen and I share a passion for flowers and florals--as is evident on her beautiful blog Steadily Emerging With Grace--as well as an interest in history. I was happy to learn she shared my love of the prints of Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), painter and botanist, who is particularly well known for developing the stippling technique that makes these illustrations so nuanced in colour, and for his roses as reproduced here. Redouté was the illustrator for the Royal Gardens of Marie Antoinette; and, unlike her, survived the French Revolution to become a botanical illustrator for the République Française and the Empress Joséphine. He accompanied Napoléon on his expedition to Egypt, where it was Redouté’s delightful task to record exotic flora in his exquisite, and exquisitely accurate, style.

Coming next...Part II M's Story!

17 comments:

angie nader said...

what a nice story....its nice to see how your relationship developed...now i will go read part 2..
p.s thanks for sharing.
...and thanks for posting Chiara

Chiara said...

Angie Nader--Thank YOU! and I am looking forward to your comment on Part II. Ellen and M were a delight to work with on this.

Murtadha said...

what a great story to share and read Chaira. Thank you so much having it in your blog.

as for the first question, the process of getting marriage approval would be easier if M is over 30 years old. however, that doesn't mean that you lose hope. There is always hope as long both of you have the strong commitment to each other.
One of my friend have gained the marriage permission from the government by providing the government papers proving that he has a health problem. The government allow some Saudi under some condition (like health problem) to have an Exception and marry whoever they want from outside.
That is what I know from my friends. However, I will try to get more facts and info about this so it can help you in your marriage approval process.
Oh one another point I forgot to say, you should start saving money from now, because you may need to use Wasta in order to get the marriage permission from the gov if all the other options don't work out!. The wasta means paying an official in the gov to make an exception for your case. I have seen many people who have done it and it works with them !

as for your second question about the differences between Saudi and Bahrain. The differences are huge. Bahrain is very open country for foreigners and you aren't forced there to wear the hijab or follow specific religion, while Saudi arabic is very closed country, rarely you see foreign people there and you have to follow the religious instruction in Saudi otherwise you will be in trouble. women can drive in Bahrain while they don't in Saudi. I don't know about the economy and job potential in Bahrain but I think u should easily find a job in teaching english. I really really think Bahrain is great choice for you to live and work and even if your husband works in Saudi, both of you can easily see each other because Bahrain is close to Saudi. If your husband lives in Alqatif or Alhassa (the two shia cities in Saudi) then it is only couple of hours of driving.

My advice for you: plan ahead, make as many friends as you possibly can from Bahrain and Saudi. Friendship is valued so so much there and it can help you so much in adjusting your life.

My last point here is: marriage permission isn't as important as marriage itself. Never lose hope. As long you love each, and made the commitment to be with each other, then everything will take care of itself.

My grandfather always tells me that when a man falls in love with a woman and marry her for the sake of love, Allah will take care of everything in their life and make the an easier and joyful path for both of them.

apparently I realized that he is telling me that in attempt to convince me to get married soon lol
Many of my friends told me it is true statement but I can't confirm it... because I am not married yet lol

I wish both of you best luck in the most enjoyable journey of your life!

Chiara said...

Murtahda--thank you for your wonderfully comprehensive and sensitive comment on this! You obviously have knowledge of the region, and have offered good advice and things to think about to Ellen and M. I think that your comment about building friendships in Saudi and Bahrain now is a particularly wise one that gets left out. Friends can help smooth transitions, and give meaning living anywhere.

Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man. He also sounds like one who wants the best for you, ie now that you are graduating a nice wife and a nice life in Saudi! LOL :) Grandfathers can be very powerful influences as you know, and yours sounds like one with advice worth following--later! LOL :)

Aziz said...

Regarding the first question.

You would be wise to disclose your Islamic marriage to the Saudi Embassy in Australia, however, that would be best after your Husband has graduated and had his certificate verified and accepted by the Minsitry of Higher Education. You will be asked to disclose lots of information, give them whatever they will deem necessary. How it proceeds then is dependent on them, however in your case, it will be a bit sketchy, as you have never been to Saudi Arabia and will not know if you are serious in residing there and making it your future home. Also you were never born or raised there, so expect it to also be a sticking point with them.

Having said that, this allows the second question to be answered quite easily, you have been to Bahrain to meet your Husbands family, and I'm sure you found it alot more relaxed and to your liking, and its not as if its a million miles away from Qatif, your Husbands family can visit you on the weekend if the permission is not forthcoming, and it has a majority Shia populace, so doubtful any discrimination will be present, and lets not forget you would be able to drive and not cover your head if you so desire. As for the discrimination in the country as a whole towards Shia people, its true. But as a proud Eastern Province resident myself I can say that its not present within the people of the region themselves, its purely prejudice of the newly arrived from certain parts of the country best left unmentioned. I've friends of the Shia branch of Islam and several are more than family, so to disparage them would be the same as disparaging me, times have changed here in the Eastern Province. I honestly wish you both the best of luck and that things move well for you both.
December 2, 2009 11:40 AM

Chiara said...

Aziz--thank you for your wise advice to Ellen. I would only add that one should plan for a long process and intermediary stages, while developing more knowledge about language and culture that would be useful in Saudi, and contacts there as well, including more family meetings. In the meantime the 2 years in Australia to finish a degree, and perhaps an initial move to Bahrain would make sense.

I recently spoke to a Palestinian Jordanian whose cousin married a Saudi, and she had little difficulty getting the permission, Iqama, and citizenship. That seems to favour the idea that Arab Muslims have an easier time of the process, because there is greater evidence that they will adapt better culturally, and pose fewer international problems for the Saudi Government if the marriage does end. However,there may have been other factors involved in the facilitation. LOL :)

I do hope others will share their views, suggestions, and experiences to give Ellen and M more information to work from in their decision-making process.
December 2, 2009 7:38 PM

Chiara said...

One other thought, when I married Islamically and legally in Morocco, no mahrem was required. I did have a notorized, officially translated (to French and Arabic) letter from my father giving his consent to my marrying that specific Moroccan (DOB, place of birth, National ID no. as well as name), but it wasn't required. It did reassure the adoul who were hesitant because we were marrying outside my hub's city of birth and residence (long story). The letter remains in the archives of our paperwork odyssey (though not nearly as odyssean as that of the Saudi permission process).

It seems from the comments on other posts that the mahrem's presence and approval are less rigorously required outside the Gulf. We know others who had their French marriage approved Islamically in Morocco by having 12 Moroccan men testify that they were man and wife.

So Ellen and M may or may not have to do something more about their Islamic marriage, it seems to me.

Perhaps others will comment on this aspect as well.
December 2, 2009 7:48 PM

Nadia said...

I was just a little over 23yrs old when my brother started the permission process with the Ministry of Interiors. I got the approval abt a yr later when I was 24. My brother did mention tht age was an issue but I think it applies more for the woman than the man. Saudi women are supposed to marry early on and so anyone over a certain age might be considered a spinster and somehow the govt would be more willing to let her marry a foreigner. Or so I was told.
Good luck to you Ellen and your husband. It's a very trying and tiring process to embark on but God-willing it will have a happy ending.
December 2, 2009 10:40 PM

Chiara said...

Nadia--Thank you for your comment and sharing your experience. For clarification, you are Saudi and your husband is? Was getting an Iqama for him a problem?
December 3, 2009 12:21 AM

Maha Noor Elahi said...

Wonderful story!
I am just surprised to know that students on scholarships are not allowed to get marreid! This is really unfair and I can't see the reasoning behind it.

As for moving to Saudi Arabia, Ellen, if you decide to live in Jeddah, you will surly have better and more job opportunites, especially if you choose to teach English. We are dying to find good English teachers :)

Regarding the Saudis treatment of Shia, I know they are not liked here, but I've never seen any shiite treated badly. In fact, I have a Lebanese friend who is a Shiite and we're fine together as long as we don't discuss religion...we actually never brought up such a topic..
Also, my father (who lives in Makkah) has been renting his house for about 8 years now to a Shia group and the group's coordinator is a very respectable man and he feels very happy dealing with my father and brothers all those years.

Ellen, I wish you the best, and if you come to Jeddah, I'll be your friend, so don't worry :)
December 3, 2009 3:35 AM

Ellen said...

Chiara - The post looks beautiful, especially with all the flowers!

Aziz - The verification of his degree is the annoying part, hahah. I wish we could get it done in a second but again it's something more that will take time. And yes I definitely agree with you - the people of the EP, as M has told me, are lovely. It's just in terms of the government and some jobs that I personally feel that Shias are discriminated in. But knowing that the actual people in the area we'd be in support us makes that easier.

Chiara - Yes, the move to Bahrain was definitely one we're thinking about! It seems easier to live there until the approval is (hopefully!) granted as I would imagine that the Bahraini government would recognise our marriage and hopefully that would make it somewhat easier. And yeah we need to more in regards to the marriage - as in it's an Islamic one at the moment, not a legal one. Making is legal is important to me (considering I'm not Muslim) so that's definitely something we're trying to figure out how to do haha.

Nadia - I'm happy to hear that it only took you a year because I thought it might be harder for women to get the permission. InshaAllah our process will go well too!

Maha - Me neither :( And yes Jeddah is a beautiful city! I can't see us moving there because M's family's house is in the EP but it'd be a lovely place to live. Jeddah to me seems much more multicultural as well. And that's wonderful about your father! MashaAllah.
I'm happy to have a friend already ;)
December 3, 2009 5:13 AM

Chiara said...

Ellen--I am glad you like the way the post looks, and thanks for commenting.

Eventually moving to Bahrain might be a confirmation that you are willing and able to adapt to living in an Arab Muslim culture.
Systemic discrimination like the one you are describing against Shias is truly awful, but knowing that individuals are more accepting must be a relief.

If you were to marry either legally in Australia, or legally in an Islamic country (where it would automatically be an Islamic marriage at the same time) that should cover both religion and the law. Being a Daughter of the Book meant for me only that I had to have a Christian man represent me (not my father as it turned out because of travel issues) to ensure my rights were respected and speak on my behalf. Not easy to find a Christian man on short notice in Morocco! LOL :)
Unlike my husband I was not required to repeat an Islamic prayer, nor was anything mentioned about converting. The marriage contract indicates that I am Catholic (they assumed so) and that the children would be raised Muslim, which is non-negotiable, but we had discussed and agreed on that anyway. I have no problems with that as long as they are knowledgeable about and respectful of Christianity. It shouldn't be a problem since the hub and his siblings were all educated by the nuns ages 3-6 LOL :)

Hmmm must get Coolred commenting on life in Bahrain as she spent 20+ years living there! LOL :)
December 4, 2009 11:03 PM

Silver Tone said...

Dear M. first of all are you planning to get you degree, because if you’re willing to, believe me then you will not have any problem in getting the suitable job you want anywhere in the world, however I get to since that the issue is your attachment to you family and your people(culture), and this is coming amongst people of Qatif despite their life style I think, so if I have to put myself in your shoes, my first options would be working for Saudi ARAMCO or Juabyl Industrial City, I’m sure you are familiar with those 2, in regards of so many factors one of them that you only have experienced the first impression from your family side and that is regarding the way you and your wife want to live your life and how you want to raise your kids, you have given what you think and hope for in that matter but fact will present itself indeed, considering all ethical & religious criteria’s, and the interference you would face from family side and/or society, my second choice would be Bahrain, unless you can bare the distance and Conceder livingin Australia where you seem have no problem in doing so based on you ideology you have presented in your story, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make it hard on you but you have to be prepared for the challenge you might face, and yes walli or mahram is one of the basics requirements however considering some circumstances “Aurf” sometimes apply, as long you did your best in asking to do it right IA.
As of the way to approach you marriage permission, well from my experience, although there is no certain order applies here, the main rules are;
1- No marriage before permission ( not an obstacle).
2- Age should be 45 and above, exceptions: if you’re handy capped, some restriction keeping you from marrying a Saudi, and if you are divorced from one.
However your already married, so it gets easier when you have your first child, so the mistakes you will need to avoid is NOT acquiring marriage certificate from Australia- after graduation that is- and you must authenticate it from Saudi Embassy, then ministry of exterior here in Saudi, only then you can approach ministry of interior, Private Affairs Dept. and complete all requested Doc. they ask you for and the rest depends on your luck on how long it will take, yet Insha’Allah you will get it in the end, I hope this would be a for the benefit, and wish you both all the best.
December 6, 2009 12:44 AM

Chiara said...

Silver Tone--Welcome, and thank you for your comment, and suggestions.
You made some helpful suggestions about where to work and live in Saudi after M completes his degree, and Ellen hers; and, gave some good warnings about the impact of living close by family.

While it is true that for persons deemed less marriageable the permission is easier, I think the advice you gave in this regard about being sure to have things cleared with the Saudi Embassy in Australia first, and then proceed through the other steps is the most applicable to Ellen and M's situation.

I am sure they appreciate your good wishes.

I hope you will read more in Part II, and comment there as well, and on newer and older posts that may interest you. Thanks again for your comment.
December 6, 2009 4:58 AM

Anonymous said...

Mashallah thank you for this. I am much earlier in the process than Ellen and M. I am Australian, and he is Saudi. I am Muslim. We have approval from both of our families (which for us was the most important thing), which was surprisingly easy to get from his father. He agreed the first time it was mentioned, much to our surprise. The legal part is the issue now though. We know about the issues with the scholarship, and don't mind waiting until he graduates. I was wondering about two things:
1. his family has a genetically inherited disease, which he does not have himself, but his other brothers do, and one sister. I read what has been said above about more leniancy for health conditions. Will this hold any weight that there is a genetic disease through his family?
2. I also read about the 35 and over age limit for the man. Is there any way around this?
3. Is an Islamic marriage enough to be able to visit his family in Saudi? I have met some here, but we would like for me to meet all of them. Is there a way to do this?

Our plan now, since we have gained the agreement of both our families, is to first speak to the saudi embassy to see what we need to do. We are currently keeping everything a secret, due to what friends will think if we are not married and together. Once we have spoken to the embassy and have the plan clear, perhaps we will make an Islamic marriage to make things easier for us, but we would like for me to make that with his family.
Finally, I know i probably shouldn't ask about this, but sometimes we have to find alternative methods. What exactly is the deal with wasta?
Thanks again everyone, it helps reading that others are going through this, and knowing that if they can get through it I can too.

Chiara said...

Anonymous--thank you very much for your comment. My apologies for the delay in replying.

First, congratulations on having both families' permission. That can for some be the greatest hurdle.

Second, I would be cautious about approaching the Saudi Embassy since he is on scholarship. Most embassies like to stay on top of "eventualities". For example, as soon as we asked the Canadian Embassy in Morocco about how to go about getting married, they put the hub on a list to block him from getting any visa, even a tourist visa which he had had before. I'm not sure about the Saudi Embassy but perhaps others would know how risky it is to hint at any intention to marry while on the scholarship. It seems that Aziz commenting above, whom I know has a lot of knowledge about this, was saying not to disclose even an Islamic marriage, so a general cautionary note.

Third, I do know others who have received permission without the man being 35 so I think it can depend on other factors as well.

I know less about which illnesses would qualify as giving greater hope for permission, but perhaps others will.

Fifth-an Islamic marriage would not be sufficient for you to visit Saudi together as a couple. Only a marriage approved by the Saudi government is considered a legal marriage. You could meet other family members in a nearby country, like one of the other Gulf States, or Middle Eastern countries, for example. You might also get a different type of visa but then you would not be able to behave as a couple, and certainly not to be alone together in private or in public. As punishment for this would be severe it is not worth the risk,

Finally, wasta can help, but generally a very thorough adherence to procedures is necessary. Certainly having family onside is a great help, just in negotiating the process, and sometimes a family member knows someone who knows someone, etc. Some have found writing to the governing Prince and getting a letter of support to be helpful.

I would strongly encourage you to check the other stories under the category Marriage Permission/ Visa/ Iqama in the sidebar, and Personal Stories for more information and insights including in the comments.

Also, if you are willing, doing your own post here would make sure that people saw your questions and elicit more answers. Check the page under the opening banner called Personal Stories for more details, and the Personal Stories category for more examples. I would certainly help you with it.

BTW Ellen converted to Islam, and they married legally and Islamically in Australia. They still don't have the marriage permission from the Saudi government, and have been living a long distance relationship since M graduated and had to return to Saudi. Bahrain has remained a meeting place for them and for family. M just received his visa to be able to return to live and work in Australia. M and Ellen have an online business selling Islamic clothing. More information and updates are available on Ellen's blog which is still at the same link as in the post.

I look forward to hearing from you here or about the post at the blog email address chezchiara2 AT yahoo DOT com.

All the best!

Chiara said...

PS I fixed the blog link at the opening of my post, so you should be able to link easily to Ellen's blog.

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