Saudi Arabia looks to ban child brides

By DAVID E. MILLER / THE MEDIA LINE
June 3, 2011 13:51

In a country where no laws protect children from marriage, efforts to make wedlock more female-friendly raises conservatives’ ire.

4 minute read.



Muslim women and children (illustrative).

Muslims 311. (photo credit: Kevin R. Wexler/The Record/MCT)

The case of a nine-year-old girl given away in marriage by her father to a 58-year-old man because of argument with his wife shocked many Saudis. Widespread media coverage brought the plight of child brides to the fore in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom where no law currently protects children like "the Unayzah girl," as she was called after her home town, from the misery of early marriage. 

That was two years ago. Finally, the Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia's 150-member consultative body, voted this week by a large margin in favor of setting a minimum marriage age for women. The council is only an advisory body, so the matter has been sent to the Justice Ministry for enactment. Government sources told the on-line daily Ilaf that the ministry would set the minimum marriage age at 17. 

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"The only way to stop this legal rape is to pass a law," Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi woman activist, told The Media Line. "They can start with age 15, like most Gulf countries, and then they gradually increase it."

The practice of families marrying off their underage girls to elderly, usually wealthy, men has long been criticized by local and international human rights organizations. But the most conservative Saudis, including many in the religious establishment, are loath to disrupt age-old customs that are often assumed to have a basis in Islam as well.

Thus many activists are sceptical that the minimum age will see its way into the law anytime soon. Huwaider said Saudi Arabia's decision makers were not "brave enough to protect the little girls,” a view echoed by  Khuloud Al-Fahad, a Saudi women's rights activist from Dhahran, who said she welcomed the Shoura Council's vote.

"I'm not optimistic at all that this will become law," Al-Fahad told The Media Line. "The radical Islamists are the ones who decide, and they don't believe in women's rights."

The proposed ban of May-December weddings comes amid a wider effort to make marriage law friendlier to women. The planned changes would be a small advance for women in a country where their rights are among the most severely constrained in the world -- banned from driving, voting in what few elections there are, or mixing with men who aren’t related to them.

A proposed amendment to the law would make it easier for Saudis to marry foreigners and limit the age difference allowed between men and women who marry in Saudi Arabia to 25 years. But conservatives oppose that change, too, for exposing Saudi women to foreign gold-diggers.

Al-Fahad said conservatives justify child marriage by arguing that the Prophet Muhammad married his beloved wife Aisha when she was nine. They then accuse domestic opponents of child marriage of being un-Islamic and they have the backing of Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Abd Al-Aziz Al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the kingdom.

"It is wrong to claim that marrying a girl under the age of 15 is unlawful," Al Al-Sheikh asserted girls when the debate on child marriage peaked in 2009. "When a female passes the age of ten or twelve, she is ready for marriage, and anyone who claims otherwise wrongs her."

Al-Fahad said that as troubling as the phenomenon was, marrying off young girls is still quite rare in Saudi society and mostly limited to rural areas. She insisted that the majority of Saudis condemn the practice.  
   
Official data recently published in Saudi Arabia supports Al-Fahad's claim. According to a recent poll conducted by the Saudi National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), two thirds of Saudis oppose marriage for girls under the age of 18.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has joined international conventions that ban the abuse of children and women, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Kingdom ratified in 1996, and the Treaty for the Rights of Women, which Saudi Arabia joined in 2000.

"Marriage of underage girls is a murder of innocence and a violation of childhood," Zoheir Al-Harithi, a Shoura Council member who tabled the proposal told the Saudi daily Okaz. "Minors are financially and physically exploited; they cannot grasp the consequences of this connection nor fathom its repercussions."

Last January, the Shoura Council for the first time defined childhood as the age between birth and 18. But the council deliberately excluded the matter of child marriages from the debate.

Council member Al-Harithi said he believed the international treaties are a secondary reason to support legislation banning chid marriage.

"More important is that we have a social problem and legal-humanitarian one, which we are not embarrassed to admit, especially considering that [this issue] has started affecting our lives and the future of our children," he told Okaz.


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