#41: Using motherhood against her

An anonymous guest piece on divorcing a bully. Plus, the pressure of ageing in lockdown, and more...

Hi, I’m Alya Mooro and you’re reading The Greater Conversation, a weekly newsletter honestly addressing all aspects of life through the eyes of a Middle Eastern / third-culture / woman / human. Each week, there’s some thoughts from me, along with a guest piece and recommendations of articles, books*, podcasts and etc worth consuming. If you’ve just subscribed, welcome! If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email to join the list.

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This week’s anonymous guest piece is a long and important one, so I will do little more than intro it here. In it, the author, a 31-year-old woman based in Dubai shares her experience of being in a toxic marriage, and how societal expectations, and custody and divorce laws, made escaping that marriage all the more difficult.

For some background, as I wrote in The Greater Freedom, “Divorce laws across the region are unequal for men and women, with women discriminated against in child custody and guardianship decisions…

“In Egypt, for example, laws state that women can only retain custody of their sons until the age of seven and daughters until they turn nine, after which the children must live with their fathers. In Jordan, mothers must also be deemed as trustworthy and ‘able to perform their duties’ and are not allowed to remarry.”

As if it’s not difficult enough to gather yourself up and leave a toxic relationship without having to battle inequality and all its implications.

Read the guest piece below.

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Anonymous, 31, Dubai

It’s been one month since the verdict and a year and a half since my divorce. 13 years since we got married and three and a half since he started blackmailing me using my children. And it’s still not over.

At some point, every intelligent woman must ask herself the question: what cardinal sin did I commit to deserve this from him? Then it occurred to me; marrying Mr.X at the age of 17 wasn’t the mistake, but starting a family with him at 20 was.

I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, to Saudi, albeit progressive, parents. They are both scholarly, cultured, extensively traveled individuals from respectable upper-class families. I in turn, was also well-read, well-educated and reasonably cosmopolitan by the age of 17. Cosmopolitan in many respects, but one.

I had never even held hands with a boy until I was engaged. I grew up in a Riyadh that is much stricter than the one you can visit today; it was a place where religious police walked around with armed police escorts, arresting any non-related teenage boys and girls who dared to sit together at the local Starbucks.

The combination of social conditioning that asked me to sustain my reputation- as though it was of the utmost value- and religious conditioning of the period, meant that I simply did not know how to converse, let alone argue, with a strange man.

I am not alone in this and I know many women who were taught that good girls obey orders. So, a few years after my marriage, and despite my parents warning me against it, I became pregnant with my daughter. I still remember the fights and how I had pleaded with Mr.X that I wasn’t ready to become a mother.

Please don’t get me wrong, there is nothing in this world that I love more than my children. I thank God every day for my bright, beautiful kids. Bringing them into this world was an honour; they taught me what it means to love. Having my children wasn’t the mistake but having them with Mr.X was.

At the time, he said he would divorce me if I didn’t get off the pill. My mother had even intervened and asked my mother-in-law to put a stop to it, but she refused. She thought she was within her rights to ask me to conceive. How long are we, as a society, going to push women into reproducing before they are ready?

I was very young when most of my major life decisions were made. I had my daughter during my second year of university and was pregnant with my son by the time graduation rolled around. Halfway through my final year of high school, Mr.X’s family had knocked on my family’s door to ask for my hand in marriage. Six elegantly dressed women appeared for tea one day, to assess if I was “good enough” for him. Two weeks later, 12 men, including uncles and cousins and grandparents, came with him to represent him in our Girayat al-fatha, the start of our courtship.

In the 6 months that ensued, I was showered with adoration and presents. We had so many parties I genuinely lost count - all to celebrate our “Sacred Union.” To think back on the useless spending, the amount spent on the wedding alone could have paid for 5 years of child support. Child support that he refuses to pay because he claims he can’t afford it. This is despite the fact that he lives in his father’s beachfront property, drives a two million dollar car, and has recently gotten re-married to another pretty girl from a good family.

Despite the obscene amount of money that I have seen Mr.X spend, today, his children have no home, no car, no savings, no Passports, no Emirates IDs, nor even Health Insurance cards. They lost all their clothes, toys, books and belongings because their father wanted to get back at me. Sometimes, I think I am being punished by him because I was the one who wanted out. God forbid a woman chooses to leave a man instead of the other way around.

At the beginning of our marriage, he chose where we ate, what movie we went to, what I wore, and whether I was allowed to buy certain coloured bedsheets. Like many Arab men, Mr.X was brought up to believe that “Alf meen titmanak” or, roughly translated, a thousand girls would beg for the privilege of being your wife.

From the outside, it did seem like we had a great setup. We lived in a penthouse, I wore the best clothes and ate at the best restaurants. But the marriage was a disaster. Every argument we had ended with “If you don’t like it, you can go back to your parents’ house!” - like this was Amazon and you could return unwanted merchandise. Every time he said it, it made me love him a little less. Authentic love doesn’t punish, it does not keep score.

In our last year of marriage, he threatened to take my kids away from me, saying his mother could raise them instead. I had always hoped that if I left him the house and the kids, if I left quietly, at a loss, “without airing dirty laundry”, he would continue to be involved as a father to some extent, or at least financially support them. I thought he hated me but loved them. Today, he has ripped me of all my delusions.

Why did my parents allow such a thing you ask? Because they thought I was in trusted hands. Because he didn’t show any signs of being a bully. He had seemingly decent manners and didn’t behave in ways that are considered red flags. No drinking, drugs, cheating or beating. Everything else is manageable, right?

I think had my father really known the indignity I suffered at his hands, he would have never allowed the marriage to continue. My father had not spent a lifetime getting me the best education he could afford, to allow another man to strip away my sense of self-worth.

Why didn’t I complain you ask? I did ­– to a select few. But I was told time and time again that “men are like this” and “it’s part of the package” and “you just have to learn to deal.” For the most part, I didn’t realize what was happening to me until it was too late. I was gaslighted and emotionally manipulated by the first man I ever had a relationship with. What’s more, I was not brought up to air out “dirty laundry.” I wanted to solve my own problems.

I spent most of my 20s being a mother and trying to fix my marriage. This was time and energy I could have invested into a career, instead of into something that was always a failed venture. Had I known I would be supporting them alone, I would have made better decisions. I would have made appropriate arrangements for them. I could have started a career earlier. I would have refused the jewellery and the expensive gifts and asked for practical things, like an apartment or even furniture. Had I known the kids would lose everything after the divorce anyway, I would have put them in a car and driven off many years ago.

My situation is not unique. Many women face similar circumstances, and much worse. Why does no one question the sanity of our decision making as a society? Customs, laws and social norms allow unfit, irresponsible men to marry and have children. Then, when things go south, there is no one to blame and no one to stop them from doing the same again.

How can our societies simultaneously claim that motherhood is the be-all and end-all, while using a woman’s motherhood against her? If a woman chooses to leave her children behind in order to get away from a toxic relationship – something that custody laws in many Middle Eastern countries enforce – she is considered cruel and unloving. If a woman manages to take her children and tries to give them the best life, she is treated with disdain and contested at every turn.

Where is it said that once you become a mother, you must lose the ability to turn your life around, fix your mistakes and build a better future? The laws keep you at the mercy of a man. 

Thankfully, I’m luckier than most to have my father’s continuous support, emotionally and financially. Also, the courts have ruled in my favour- twice! While I am about to go back to court for a third time, I am eternally grateful to God for getting me here and for the Dubai courts due process. My children are happy, in my home and in my heart, and I am finally safe from all the bullying.

Getting here took strength and resilience I never thought I had. I have built a new life. Though it may not be on my own terms, I can rest my head at night knowing that I have put an end to the disgusting disrespect with which I was treated.

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If you identify as a Middle Eastern woman and would like to contribute a guest piece to The Greater Conversation, please email me. You can share anonymously too if you prefer.


This newsletter is sponsored by The Doe, a digital publication which shares unfiltered, anonymous stories in an effort to encourage conversation and engagement with new ideas. The narrative I want to share this week is: I Was Adopted: My Parents and the Significance of Selflessness.

In it, the author writes about how his birth mother, who was schizophrenic, was unable to look after him and his siblings. His adoptive parents saved them, he says, in doing so, teaching him what it means to be selfless.

Read the narrative on The Doe

I had the honour of Zoom-ing with the brilliant Nikesh Shukla ahead of the release of his latest book Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home for Shondaland. We spoke about how editing the seminal The Good Immigrant impacted the writing, working towards hope in the midst of a global pandemic, and what an audiences' inability to suspend their disbelief says about where we still are in terms of conversations about race.

Read the interview


A quote from a book you should read:

“When you find yourself high on the roof of a hotel with a husband who doesn’t outright say that the two of you shouldn’t jump off, you start to realise you have a lot of problems. That wasn’t my rock bottom. But it was the first time I looked around and thought, Oh, wow, I’m falling.”

- Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid



*this newsletter contains affiliate links to a new online platform that gives a percentage of each purchase directly to struggling independent bookshops.

Thanks for subscribing! I'm Alya, the person behind this newsletter. I am a freelance journalist and the bestselling author of The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. You can follow me on Instagram here, and Twitter here.

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