Two women help­ing vul­ner­a­ble ex­pats stuck in mar­riages.

With the rate of ex­pat di­vorces in Dubai hav­ing risen by as much as 40 per cent since 2012, two di­vorcees have joined forces to of­fer sup­port to women trapped in mar­riages. Anthea Ay­ache meets them

Friday - - Contents -

Fiona Cameron’s heart raced as she ap­proached Dubai Air­port’s pass­port con­trol, her clammy hands grip­ping her two old­est chil­dren close. Obliv­i­ous to their mother’s thun­der­ing heart and pan­icky pulse, the pair squab­bled next to her, fight­ing over one of only two soft toys they had been hastily told to take.

The 43-year-old mother of three wanted to tell them off but held back; she didn’t want to get an­gry. It was not their fault that she was leav­ing their fa­ther, they were not to blame for the ar­gu­ments, the con­stant fight­ing, the fact he was never home these days. In­stead, she smiled at them and told them to hush, rocked the stroller where thank­fully her golden-haired lit­tle two-year-old daugh­ter was sleep­ing, thumb in mouth, and tried to stay calm.

Fi­nally, it was their turn. They crossed over the yel­low line and Fiona flashed her most con­vinc­ing smile as she stopped the buggy and placed the Bri­tish pass­ports on the counter.

“We’re go­ing to visit Granny and Grandpa,” she gushed un­nec­es­sar­ily as the of­fi­cer looked at her.

‘Too ner­vous, too ob­vi­ous’ she chas­tised her­self; try­ing to re­mem­ber how she’d acted when she’d trav­elled un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances.

She smiled ner­vously as she tried to for­get the Bri­tish Em­bassy’s warn­ing that if she left Dubai with her kids with­out telling their Bri­tish fa­ther, a man to whom she had been mar­ried for 10 years, she could be stopped and taken into cus­tody.

Stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp. Sud­denly the noise she had been wait­ing for was ring­ing in her ears. “Have a good trip,” the of­fi­cer said as he re­turned the pass­ports to her and ush­ered for­ward the next pas­sen­ger.

“Up un­til that mo­ment it was prob­a­bly the worst ex­pe­ri­ence of my life,” says Fiona, now 46, di­vorced and liv­ing in Dubai.

“I was ter­ri­fied I would be ar­rested be­cause I was scared if my hus­band had put a travel ban on the kids like he had threat­ened to a few nights ear­lier, then I wouldn’t be able to take them with me. Af­ter he made that threat I saw the lawyer and that very day I was on a plane back to the UK.”

Fiona, who has been a Dubai ex­pat for 21 years and has since di­vorced her hus­band and gained full cus­tody of the chil­dren through the Bri­tish courts, is now back in Dubai work­ing in her pre­vi­ous role as a Key Stage 1 pri­mary school as­sis­tant leader at Jebel Ali Pri­mary School.

“At the time I was an emo­tional wreck,” re­mem­bers the co-founder of di­vorce sup­port group, Leaves Dubai. “It was har­row­ing. I didn’t want my mar­riage to end but my hus­band was out so­cial­is­ing con­stantly and

I was ter­ri­fied I would be ar­rested… I saw a lawyer and that very day I was on a plane back to the UK

find­ing more and more ex­cuses not to spend time with us. The mar­riage fell apart, and all of a sud­den I was faced with the daunt­ing pos­si­bil­ity of giv­ing up my home, my job, my friends, my kid’s school and what felt like my coun­try.”

Think­ing she had lit­tle sup­port, ad­vice or ac­ces­si­ble in­for­ma­tion, Fiona found her­self in fight or flight mode and chose to flee.

Be­cause UAE di­vorce cases are gov­erned by Sharia, and un­der Sharia it’s not easy for an es­tranged cou­ple to sep­a­rate un­less the judge is fully con­vinced that the mar­riage won’t work, Fiona was con­cerned that dur­ing what could be a drawn-out di­vorce process, she would be un­able to see her chil­dren.

Hastily call­ing in sick to work, she packed six suit­cases for her­self and the kids, and while her hus­band was at the of­fice, she set off to re­turn to the UK. It was only as the flight to Manch­ester was about to take off that Fiona called her par­ents in the UK and told them what she’d done, and it was only once she’d ar­rived that she called to tell her hus­band.

To­day Fiona ad­mits that her ac­tions were spurred on by fear of the un­known based on years of ru­mours about the rights of women dur­ing a di­vorce in the UAE. Most im­por­tantly she says she would not have done what she did if she had easy ac­cess to cor­rect and help­ful in­for­ma­tion.

“If there had been a sup­port group to turn to I would have stayed,” she says. “I ran be­cause I was very afraid and I’d iso­lated my­self. If I’d been able to talk to other women with sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences I would have been able to take the time to reach a de­ci­sion.”

To­day she and friend Anne Prince – who is split­ting from her hus­band of 23 years on Dubai soil, far from her Bri­tish home – run a sup­port group for people go­ing though di­vorces away from their home­land.

“We both went through dif­fi­cult sep­a­ra­tions,” says Anne, 44, whose di­vorce pro­ceed­ings are still on­go­ing. “We had no one to turn to for ad­vice. It was like a mine­field that you had to work your way through alone.

“I started talk­ing to Fiona af­ter we were in­tro­duced by other people go­ing through di­vorce and we said to our­selves, ‘Why are we all do­ing this separately? Let’s group to­gether’.” So in June last year the pair formed Leaves Dubai, and to­day, al­though still in its in­fancy, the group has around 10 mem­bers at­tend­ing its monthly ses­sions.

Anne, who works as a part-time French teacher, has also started to of­fer guid­ance to those seek­ing free one-on-one guid­ance.

“Go­ing to a group takes strength,” she says. “You have to be ready to speak out but there are quite a few women who still feel a lit­tle too vul­ner­a­ble for that, so I of­fer them the chance to meet be­fore­hand.”

Al­though Anne ad­mits she doesn’t have the pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tions to coun­sel, both women are quick to point out that they don’t pre­tend to be any­thing other than a point of call for ad­vice and a chat.

“We make it clear that the only thing we have to of­fer is that we have both been through it,” says Fiona. “We aren’t pro­fes­sion­als, we are not a reg­is­tered char­ity. We are just a group who get to­gether to share ex­pe­ri­ences and pool in­for­ma­tion.”

And pool­ing in­for­ma­tion is im­per­a­tive in a coun­try as new as Dubai where laws are be­ing in­tro­duced and adapted to an ever-chang­ing land­scape. “Mak­ing sense of the law can be chal­leng­ing,” says Fiona. “There aren’t prece­dents to look back at for guid­ance. Also the ru­mour mill runs amok here so fables can be re­garded as true!”

“The prece­dence is­sue is a big one,” says Anne. “Only a few years ago if your mar­riage broke up in Dubai, you went home. Sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies are a rel­a­tively new fea­ture and the laws are evolv­ing at the same time.”

To­day ac­cord­ing to the Dubai Sta­tis­tics Cen­tre, the emi­rate has the high­est rate of di­vorce in the GCC, while Dubai courts also re­cently re­vealed that there has been a 40 per cent rise in ex­pat di­vorce cases since 2012. Both women feel this can be ex­plained by life­style choices.

“Both men and women can rein­vent them­selves here,” Anne ex­plains. “For ex­am­ple, if they were back home, they’d be sur­rounded by par­ents, ex­tended fam­ily, friends, people who know them. They couldn’t just take off their wed­ding ring and claim to be sin­gle.”

If a part­ner be­comes fed up with such be­hav­iour, how­ever, it is not just a case of up­ping sticks and mov­ing on. Many cou­ples who live in Dubai share visa and em­ployer pack­ages that care for the fam­ily and rent.

“Lots of women are de­pen­dent on their hus­band’s or ex-hus­band’s spon­sor­ship,” says Fiona. “If a mar­riage breaks up here, of­ten he still has the house, he still has the job, he still has the visa, and it doesn’t af­fect him from a le­gal or fi­nan­cial per­spec­tive. For a lot of women, if they leave their hus­bands, they are more of­ten than not on their own.”

Which is where Leaves Dubai steps in and shows women that there are plenty of op­tions. The or­gan­i­sa­tion has de­vel­oped a net­work of trusted lawyers, psy­chol­o­gists and divorcere­lated pro­fes­sion­als who have been vet­ted and, now, rec­om­mend. Anne has even found lawyers who will of­fer to work pro bono.

“Di­vorce can be an ex­pen­sive process,” says Fiona. “And when you don’t know where your money is go­ing to come from, it can be fright­en­ing.”

So the pur­pose of Leaves Dubai is to make that painful process as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble. “Di­vorce is emo­tion­ally painful even if it’s what you want,” she adds. “Cou­ple that with the ru­mour mills and many women will end up mak­ing de­ci­sions be­cause of fear… ones that they prob­a­bly wouldn’t make if they had a sup­port group be­hind them.”

Anne says, “We both found our­selves in re­ally fright­en­ing sit­u­a­tions when we found the courage to walk away. We were com­pletely on our own and we want other women to know we are here for any sup­port they may need.” If you would like to at­tend a Leaves Dubai monthly ses­sion, con­tact Anne at leaves­dubai@

Fiona fled Dubai with her three kids but re­turned to set up her di­vorcee sup­port group

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