RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - In the summer of 2019, American Carly Morris flew to Saudi Arabia with her young daughter, hoping to spend a few weeks of quality time with the girl's Saudi father, Morris's ex-husband.
Three years later, Morris remains in the conservative desert kingdom, trapped in a prolonged and painful ordeal highlighting the power her ex-husband -- and men like him -- continue to wield over women under guardianship laws.
Soon after they landed in Riyadh, Morris's ex-husband seized their travel documents and arranged for the girl, eight-year-old Tala, to become a Saudi citizen, ensuring he could bar her from leaving.
That has left Morris effectively stranded, her savings depleted and credit cards maxed out, in a country where she does not speak the language and cannot legally work.
She has been forced to borrow money and food from strangers to scrape by.
"I will not leave without my daughter," a defiant but tearful Morris, 34, told AFP in a phone interview from the house her ex-husband rents for them in the central city of Buraidah.
Lawyers and experts say the Saudi system is stacked against women in her situation, especially foreigners, who often face a wrenching choice between staying in the kingdom with their children or returning home without them.
- 'Not an isolated case' -
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, has earned plaudits for easing notorious guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia that greatly restricted women's ability to travel and work.
Yet human rights groups note that women still require a male guardian's permission to marry, and face discrimination when it comes to divorce and custody disputes.
The recent changes "did not limit a man's ability to have the upper hand with regard to the family", said Hala al-Dosari, an activist and former visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"Absolute authority over children is given to the father to decide where to live, (go to school) and travel, and not to the mother."
Morris's situation "is unfortunately not an isolated case", said Bethany Al-Haidari of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.
"There are countless women and children trapped in similarly degrading conditions in Saudi Arabia," she added.
Morris could soon face further legal trouble.
This month she received a summons from Saudi prosecutors indicating she was under investigation for "disturbing public order", a development Morris believes is linked to social media posts about her case.
She was informed a few days ago that she had been placed under a travel ban, according to an electronic notice seen by AFP.
The family of Morris's ex-husband did not respond to requests for comment.
- Complex system -
AFP spoke to two other American mothers with similar stories. All three described their difficulty in navigating the complex Saudi legal system.
The US embassy in Riyadh told AFP it was following Morris's case "very closely" and was "in regular contact with Ms Morris and in touch with the Saudi government".
Dosari said women from other countries often receive no help at all, including domestic workers who represent the "most vulnerable group".
"Not all embassies are conducting this supportive role equally, and citizens from certain Asian or African nations often fail to respond to their foreign citizens' requests" for help, she said.
Fatima, 36, an Egyptian woman who preferred to be identified with a pseudonym for safety reasons, described herself as a "prisoner" of her Saudi husband of 15 years.
The mother of three explained that she was completely marginalized after her husband took a second wife.
"I wanted a divorce and to return to my country to raise my children, but my husband stipulated that I return alone," she told AFP through tears.
"I will never leave my children."
- 'Protecting Saudi children' -
Out of 150,000 marriages registered in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, some 4,500 were unions involving a Saudi and a foreigner, which require a special permit, according to the Saudi statistics authority.
That same year, authorities recorded 4,200 divorces in Saudi-foreigner marriages.
The Human Rights Commission, a Saudi government body, did not respond to AFP's requests for comment on Morris's case and others like it.
Nasreen al-Ghamdi, a Saudi lawyer, described the kingdom's restrictions on where foreign mothers can take their children as evidence that "the state protects Saudi children to avoid their exposure to problems abroad".
Some foreign women ultimately decide to give up and go home, even if that requires a painful separation.
American Madison Randolph, 23, told AFP she "felt like a caged animal" in her marriage to a "controlling" Saudi man.
Once she discovered she was pregnant with her second child, she negotiated with him to travel to the US for a month.
She has resolved not to return, even though she left their nine-month-old son behind.
"It was a difficult decision," she told AFP by phone.
"I wanted to save myself and the foetus I was carrying."
© Agence France-Presse