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
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@ gmail.com.
Fiona fled Dubai with her three kids but returned to set up her divorcee support group