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.
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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