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American woman stuck in Saudi Arabia, not allowed to leave over kingdom's guardianship laws

An American teacher who lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband is now effectively trapped in the kingdom after her marriage fell apart thanks to the country's draconian guardianship laws that grant men power over women's movements.

Bethany Vierra, who is originally from Washington state and taught at a women’s university, thought she had met the man of her dreams in 2011 when friends had introduced her to a Saudi businessman who seemed kind, generous and supportive. Two years after they met, they married in Portugal and would go on to have a daughter named Zaina.

But things between the happy couple took a turn and Vierra wanted out. She would soon realize that getting a divorce in Saudi Arabia and trying to come home is a lot harder than anyone would have anticipated.

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Her sister Nicole Carroll told The New York Times that Vierra is stuck in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s guardianship laws, which give men power over women, prevent her from using her bank account, leaving the country, traveling with her daughter or seeking legal help.

“She is completely stuck,” Carroll said. “She is out of options.”

Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women aren’t new – but they are severe.

Under the guardianship system, Saudi women are given a legal status similar to that of a child. Women must have a male “guardian” with them whose permission they need in order to obtain a passport or even receive certain medical procedures. Male guardians can grant or deny permission to travel through a government app and can even be notified when any woman they have oversight over passes through the airport.

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Vierra is now divorced. But her ex-husband has let her residency expire and therefore she is unable to access her bank account or get authority to leave the country.

In December, Vierra’s ex refused to allow her and Zaina to travel to the United States for Christmas and family members worry she’ll never be able to get out.

“She has no recourse,” Carroll said. “Everyone keeps asking: ‘What next? What next?’ But there is no what next.”

The kingdom’s restrictions on women were highlighted earlier this year when a Saudi teenager ran away from her vacationing family and barricaded herself in a Thai airport hotel. Her case grabbed global attention after she mounted a social media campaign via Twitter for asylum. Her efforts picked up enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of the United Nations. Eventually, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his country would allow the teen in as a refugee.

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The case highlighted the plight of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several Saudi girls and women who have tried to flee alleged abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad and forced to return home.

Saudi Arabia has come under fire for its treatment of women. Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman boasted the country had loosened some restrictions on women, letting them drive and allowing them into sports stadiums.

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During a “60 Minutes” interview, he said that men and women were equal. “We are all human beings, and there is no difference.” However, when asked about guardianship rules in a different interview, he said his country needed to “figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”

Fox News' Kathleen Joyce contributed to this report.

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