I, the undersigned, give full power of attorney to the embassy of the State of Palestine to do everything possible to get my daughter, Laila, student at the University of Sanaa, College of Education, out of Yemen. I certify that she is not allowed to marry in Sanaa since she is still married to her husband, K., in Saudi Arabia. Please note that she is not responsible for any of her actions since she suffers from serious health problems and mental disorders. Signed in the presence of two witnesses, March 13, 1994.

By the time the Palestinian embassy received this affidavit on April 7, 1994, twenty-two-year old Laila had already defied her father’s wishes and married a penniless Egyptian classmate. According to her father, she was in a state of adultery, having married the Egyptian while still wed to her wealthy Palestinian paternal cousin in Saudi Arabia.

For her marriage in a Yemeni court, Laila had presented the court with a notarized document confirming that her Palestinian husband had declared a single (thus revocable) divorce on December 17, 1993. Under the law, a husband can two times declare a single divorce and then reconsider during the following three months. If he revokes, he has to notify his wife thereof and the marriage continues. When Laila married on March 18, 1994 she claimed that her Palestinian husband had not taken her back within the prescribed three-month period.

By mid-April 1994 her brother had filed a court claim in Sanaa demanding that Laila’s marriage to the Egyptian be dissolved since the first husband had revoked his divorce in late January, five weeks after its occurrence and, worse, that Laila had been informed of this in early March, some six weeks after the revocation. Laila, however, claimed that she first heard of her husband’s claim to have revoked his divorce only on April 5, three weeks after her second marriage.

The court then had to decide on two matters. Had Laila’s husband really revoked the divorce during the three-month waiting period? Second, if he did, did Laila know about it, and therefore contract her second marriage in full knowledge of its illegality? If it could be proven that she had been informed, she would, in the best case, spend time in a Yemeni prison in addition to having her marriage to the Egyptian dissolved.

To substantiate his claim, the brother presented high-ranking diplomats as witnesses who testified unanimously that they were present when Laila’s brother told her in early March that her husband had taken her back. Laila brought witnesses who denied that there had been any mention of her former husband’s action during the waiting period. Testimony also presented certain members of the Palestinian community in a rather unfavorable light: It was said that Laila had been abducted and taken to a military camp, where she was threatened with torture and rape due to her sympathy for the Egyptian student. Following these contradictory claims and testimony, the court decided that the legality of her marriage to the Egyptian student was doubtful. The couple was to be temporarily separated and Laila to stay with her brother, her only male relative in the country. She protested vehemently, threatening to kill herself should she have to return to her brother, who intended to bring her back to Saudi Arabia. The court agreed to have her stay with a third party under the condition that neither her brother nor her Egyptian husband came to see or disturb her. In the meantime Yemen was sliding into war and Laila’s Yemeni residency permit and her entry visa to Saudi Arabia had expired.

The judges were in a legal, moral and political dilemma: Documentary evidence contradicted the oral evidence. To dismiss the brother’s witnesses would have also been tantamount to accusing diplomats of lying in court — an act punishable under the law. Dismissing Laila’s statement, which had some support in the documents presented, would entail sending her into prison for some time and back into a marriage in which financial considerations on the side of her family might have had the upper hand. In court, a day before Scud missiles hit Sanaa and Aden, a judge beseeched Laila’s brother to waive his claim. He refused, wanting “to see her stoned to death rather than married to the Egyptian.” The judge in turn insisted on seeing power of attorney from Laila’s husband, which the brother failed to produce. He thus lacked any capacity to act on the husband’s behalf.

Far from considering this matter a mere technicality, the judges decided that at this stage the case could not be ruled upon with the evidence at hand. First it had to be established who the real parties to the case with a legal interest were. Contrary to assumptions often held about the workings of law in the Middle East, the Yemeni court maintained that only Laila and her husband, not her family, had a legally valid interest in the state of their marriage.

Postscript: Ten days into the war Laila’s brother and her Egyptian husband appeared and claimed that they had reconciled. The brother waived all claims against the validity of his sister’s marriage. Later, he left a note with one of the court clerks stating that he was returning to Saudi Arabia to bring back Laila’s husband, who would pursue the matter himself. Undisturbed by her brother’s behavior, Laila and her Egyptian husband borrowed money to go Egypt and start a new life. They took with them two documents — one on divorce, one on marriage — and left behind a court file as thick as a book.

How to cite this article:

Anna Wurth "The Woman with Two Husbands," Middle East Report 198 (Spring 1996).

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