The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara, swim in a pool at a friend's home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 2016. "They lay there, free, and careless," Alsultan says. "There's no public pools for women, neither is there any beach spaces for women only. Only privately owned or very expensive clubs that is not available to Saudis."
The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara, swim in a pool at a friend's home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 2016. "They lay there, free, and careless," Alsultan says. "There's no public pools for women, neither is there any beach spaces for women only. Only privately owned or very expensive clubs that is not available to Saudis."Tasneem Alsultan
The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara, swim in a pool at a friend's home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 2016. "They lay there, free, and careless," Alsultan says. "There's no public pools for women, neither is there any beach spaces for women only. Only privately owned or very expensive clubs that is not available to Saudis."
The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara, ride a scooter around the block of their neighborhood in Jubail Industrial City, April 2016. As they appear young, Alsultan says, no one will harass them.
The photographer's mother reads the Quran one morning while her eldest daughter, Sura, then 10 years old, prays in a loud voice for her grandmother to make sure it's correct. Yara, who at the time is eight years old, reads her Nancy Drew books until the school bus comes.
The photographer says her younger daughter, Yara, has a habit of waking up with the attitude of an older woman. She complains of her cold milk and cornflakes, although she eats it everyday, and of her dress that they had agreed on the night before. As soon as she's on the school bus, Alsultan says, all is calm again.
The photographer's grandfather, who has dementia, reaches for his wife, who is 80 years old. He relies fully on her now, searching for her in every room when she's not in his sight. She recalled to her granddaughter: "I was 15; He was 18. It was after a train ride from my city to his, on our wedding day, that I met him. I relied on him, for everything. And, with time, we fell in love. The struggles of raising nine children bonded us."
Dolls that Alsultan's grandmother bought on the streets of Iraq, where she is originally from. When she married Alsultan's grandfather—she was 15 and he was 18—she thought he was Iraqi. People didn't carry passports and would travel and live in neighborhoods that had a mix of religious backgrounds. Later, during the reign of Saddam Hussein, the pair traveled back to Saudi Arabia for the first time with their nine daughters and sons.
"I'm lucky I have two daughters," Alsultan says. "If it was one, she'd feel lonely. If it was a son, I think I wouldn't be as good as a single mother. But two daughters relate and understand each other—and me. We do have our own 'girl time' where we gossip and complain about how my parents can misunderstand our little rebellious plans. But all in all, we know that we're better off as women than men in Saudi."
A six-year-old girl walks out of the lifeguard booth full of kids, but no lifeguard, in Jubail Industrial City, April 2016. "Why are you taking a picture?" she asked the photographer, who replied, "perhaps because these images preserve time?" Her father was standing nearby. The girl then said, "I will remember that I can't swim here, but my brother can," before returning to play with other children.
Ghadeer, a well-known wedding planner in Saudi Arabia, chooses flowers for an upcoming event at a florist in Jeddah, May 2016. A friend of the photographer, she says she has never been married or in love.
Afrah plays with her one-year-old son in Jeddah, January 2016. Her Yemeni husband is traveling, so she is in charge of running their photography business and taking care of the baby. "In Saudi, you can't marry a man who doesn't share the same tribal roots. Your uncles can go to court and have you divorced if they object that they don't see the marriage fit for the family name. It's happened to many, and I expected to be one of them. I took care of my dying mother as a teenager whilst my father had already remarried. I also worked instead of finishing school, to raise my siblings. Although I didn't expect a difference in nationality with my husband as a hindrance, it took over a year for the paperwork. My father, surprisingly, didn't object at the time. But he did warn me of the consequences. I don't regret the decision to marry, but I do realize that my Yemeni son won't have the same privileges as a Saudi."
Mai sits in her wedding dress that she wore 15 years ago while her son sits in the background in Jeddah, October 2015. "I married my college classmate in dental school. Sharing two children and a happy marriage, we finally decided to buy our dream house. Two days before signing the lease, he died in a motorcycle accident. Then, my father died. I was legally required to have a male guardian. I now wait for my son to turn 16 to take that role. Until then, my half brother decides on my behalf."
Nasiba, a fashion designer, plays with her son, Bilal, in their home in Jeddah, May 2016. She and the boy's father divorced and she has custody of him, which is rare for divorcees in Saudi Arabia.
Nasiba, a divorced mother, carries her son to his bed, except he decided to dance and sing instead, in Jeddah, May 2016.
Nasiba, along with family and friends and the boy's father, her ex-husband, celebrate his 5th birthday at a Chuck E. Cheese's in Jeddah, May 2016.
Mai’s daughter, who aspires to be an actress and acrobat, attends a gym for young girls in Jeddah.
Ohoud lays on the couch with her daughter in their home in Jeddah, May 2016. "I only see her two nights each month," she told the photographer.
Ohoud, scuba diving in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. “We women often joke that we can’t drive," she says, "but we can dive.”
Raneen, an art curator and gallery owner, sits with her father while Facetiming her husband on the computer at her parents' home in Khobar, October 2015. "My father sat beside me filming as I drove, joining fellow women drivers pushing back in well documented 2013 protests," she told the photographer. "It is with my parents support that I was able to find love, to follow my dream of opening a gallery and be the woman I am."
Raneen, an art curator and gallery owner, and Hisham, a comedian and actor, opted for a Saudi-style "American Gothic" portrait in their unfinished swimming pool in Jeddah, December 2015. "I first met her on Twitter, then later in person," Hisham said. "Wanting nothing but fun, she told me off... I met her again at an ice cream shop. She charmed me with her happy ice cream dance." Raneen and Hisham were both previously married and divorced. Now married to each other, they realize their past mistakes. "We didn't believe in love, and were too cynical. We also thought of marriage as a duty. After we stopped searching for the one, that's when we met each other," he said.
The photographer's grandmother in her home in Dammam, February 2016. "I've been married for 64 years. Have raised six men, and three daughters. I have more than thirty grandchildren," she told Alsultan. "Yet, I can't legally sign, or travel without a male guardian. Outside of this house, my youngest grandson has more authority than me." Alsultan recalls when explaining the divorce to her daughters being asked: "'but if your grandparents love each other, then why don't they share the same bed?!' It was funny how she noted a shared bed was a must." The photographer replied that her grandparents used to share a bed, but a few years earlier and having been married for about six decades, one opted to sleep under the air conditioner and the other wanted to stay away: "It's not always about appearances."
The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara, swim in a pool at a friend's home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, April 2016. "Th
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Tasneem Alsultan
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Personal Tales of Love, Divorce and Guardianship in Saudi Arabia

Sep 23, 2016

Tasneem Alsultan was married for four years before she confided in others what she had known for a long time: her marriage wasn’t how a marriage should be. The two had an arranged meeting, he proposed and, when she was 17, they wed. She expected to fall in love down the line. Two daughters and a decade later, they divorced.

In Saudi Arabia, a private society rooted in a conservative strand of Islam that requires adult women to have a male guardian, a wife will struggle far more than her husband to end their marriage. A recent Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with dozens of women, details the imbalance: men can unilaterally divorce their wives, but women lack the same right; a man doesn't need to notify his wife of an intent to separate; and mediators and judges are typically conservative men. Throughout the proceedings, the husband remains the wife's guardian.

Regional news outlets occasionally pick up reports of outlandish cases, like a groom who separated from his bride who wouldn’t put her smartphone down on their wedding night. But rarely are significant reasons for legal separation, and the consequences for women, as publicly discussed. “I had a family member who said ‘you’re bringing shame to your sisters, your daughters. No one will marry them because you’re divorced,’” Alsultan recalls. Her ex-husband allowed her family to raise them—it was in a courtroom that Alsultan learned fathers are supposed to pay only $100 per month per child—so her father stepped in to fill the void.

Two years ago, she sat down with her daughters to explain why she had initially asked for a divorce. “I explained that I was too young to understand who I was, let alone know the person I wanted to live the rest of my life with,” she says. She aimed to instill the idea that “independence is a strength” and that while companionship is desired, it’s not necessary. “Every once in awhile, they’ll mention how their father remarrying means I should marry too,” she admits, “but I explain that I’ve not met someone that inspires me to be my best yet.”

It’s out of this personal experience that Alsultan’s series Saudi Tales of Love emerged. Born in Arizona, she moved to Saudi Arabia when she was 16 and attended university there as she started a family. She returned to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree on social linguistics and anthropology, focusing her thesis on Saudi women studying abroad and the identity issues they encounter, like how they see others and how others see them. Finally, she returned to Saudi Arabia to teach English and fell into photography along the way.

The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara.The photographer's daughters, Sura and Yara. Tasneem Alsultan 

It began as a hobby but Alsultan later turned her lens toward lavish weddings. A female Saudi wedding photographer used to be rare and even frowned upon, she says, and some Saudis consider it to be a job for “paparazzi.” Yet she gradually made a name for herself and quit her lecturing job to go full-time. As she continued down that path, she pivoted to what came next: the happily ever after—or not. Throughout the past few years, she has met women from across the spectrum in a bid to decipher the concepts of love and marriage—those who were single or divorced, married for decades, widowed or even remarried—as well as the impact of guardianship.

There’s Ohoud, an art director in Jeddah whose divorce meant she would only see her daughter two nights a month. Ghadeer, a wedding planner who Alsultan met a few years ago and who has dozens of men working under her, said she hadn’t found anyone yet worth the emotional investment. Raneen and Hisham were each divorced when they met. “After we stopped searching for ‘the one,’ that’s when we met each other,” the couple told the photographer.

Nasiba, a fashion designer in Jeddah, divorced from her son’s father but raises their boy. Alsultan was at a gallery when she spotted the woman in a black abaya that had the word “love” written on it, so she approached her to ask about her idea of love. Nasiba didn’t open up the first time, but after a friend showed her Alsultan’s work, she let her in. When the boy turned five in May, both parents attended the party at Chuck E. Cheese’s—each with someone else. (Nasiba recently remarried.)

All of her subjects have struggled with just “being a woman in Saudi,” she adds, yet “each of them fights.” Her daughters, at 9 and 11, haven’t reached that point yet. “They think it’s funny that once we cross the bridge from Saudi to Bahrain, my father and I switch seats and I start driving,” she says. “I think once they’re older and their male friends and cousins start driving cars and traveling on their own, the complains will start.”

Alsultan considers herself lucky for having her brother and father as strong male role-models in her daughters’ lives. Her father looks after four generations of women: his mother, wife, daughters and granddaughters. The limits imposed on the girls and women, she says, aren’t just exhausting for him but physically, emotionally and financially taxing on them all. “We’re like everyone else the way we want and have ambitions and fall in and out of love, but in the end we have these constraints and the struggles that we have overcome, that we want people to know,” Alsultan says. Note that it’s not “they have ambitions,” or “they fall in and out of love,” or “they have these constraints.” It’s “we.” Alsultan is a part of this.

Therein lies the power in her photography.

Tasneem Alsultan is a documentary photographer who focuses on gender and social issues. She is one of five members of Rawiya, an all-female collective in the Middle East. Follow her on Instagram @tasneemalsultan.

Andrew Katz, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

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