Saudi Arabia and Child Brides, A Disgrace and an Insult to Islam

Sheila Musaji

Posted Apr 16, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Saudi Arabia and Child Brides, A Disgrace and an Insult to Islam

by Sheila Musaji

In 12/08 Huda’s Islam blog discussed the case of the 8 year old Saudi girl married off to a middle aged man. 

How can a child be signed away in marriage to man 50 years her senior, without her knowledge and against the wishes of her mother?

The plight of an 8-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia is attracting the attention of world media, including CNN, and local media such as the Arab News and the Saudi Gazette. A contract for her marriage has been drawn up by her father and his 58-year-old friend, against the wishes of her mother and without the 4th-grader’s knowledge.

The father defends the action, citing a promise from the new husband that the marriage will not be consummated until the girl reaches the age of 18. The girl continues to live with her mother at this time.

The mother petitioned a local court to annul the marriage, but was denied on the technical ground that she is not the “legal guardian” of the child. Under Saudi law, which many local human and women’s rights groups are trying to change, a female child or adult is always under the “legal guardianship” of a male relative. So although the mother has physical custody of the child, she cannot legally represent the child in court. And ironically, since the child is still a minor, she cannot petition the court herself until she reaches puberty!

In my opinion, it’s time for the higher courts to step in and ban the practice of arranged child marriage altogether, immediately. Changes are in the works—the country’s Shoura Council (governing body) is currently considering legislation to set a minimum marriage age of 14 or 18, and perhaps banning marriages with significant age differences between husband and wife. Officials of the country’s National Human Rights Association have insisted that Saudi Arabia must adhere to signed international human rights agreements which define a “child” as anyone under the age of 18. The government requires premarital health testing, and the mother’s lawyer has expressed outrage that this marriage was not red-flagged at that point. But is the pace of bureaucracy too slow to help this particular child?

The promise of girls in marriage to older men was common in Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) Arabia, and has tribal and cultural roots. Such ignorance has no place in Islam, and many Muslim scholars and judges have spoken out against such practices. Their legal reasoning is that:

in Islamic law, in order for a marriage to be valid, the female must approve of the contract.
a minor child is considered unable to understand and enter into any type of legal contract.
a contract cannot be entered into on behalf of another person, unless that person understands and consents to it.
a girl’s silence on the issue cannot be taken as tacit approval, since the child is unable to understand the issue and is often not even told.
such marriages often result in health problems, psychological trauma, and divorce.

There is reason for hope. The Saudi National Human Rights Association has successfully intervened on behalf of other girls. Public outrage, within Saudi Arabia and worldwide, is strong and growing. Government officials have already begun the process of setting new laws. The mother’s lawyer has vowed to file an appeal next week. And hopefully, one young girl will avoid having her fate chosen for her by someone who obviously doesn’t have her best interests in mind.”

I agree with Huda completely.  How can we put pressure on the Saudi’s?  It is obvious that some sort of pressure is needed, or that Muslims across the world need to speak up about this injustice.  There may be reason to hope that this situation will seen for the outrage that it is, but that hope becomes dim when we see the position of a Saudi religious scholar even after the particulars of this case were made public.  In January of 2009 Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti said: “It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger.  A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”  The same article reported that “Last month, Zuhair al-Harithi, a spokesman for the Saudi government-run Human Rights Commission, said his organization is fighting against child marriages.  “The Human Rights Commission opposes child marriages in Saudi Arabia,” al-Harithi said. “Child marriages violate international agreements that have been signed by Saudi Arabia and should not be allowed.” He added that his organization has been able to intervene and stop at least one child marriage from taking place.”

And, in April of 2009, the BBC reports that“The marriage of an eight-year-old Saudi girl to a man in his 50s that drew worldwide attention has been annulled in an out-of-court settlement, the BBC reports. A judge had twice denied the girl—reportedly married off by her father to pay a debt—a divorce. The case has led Saudi officials to say they’d start regulating young girls’ “arbitrary” marriages.” 

UPDATE 8/09 - a 10 year old Saudi bride has been returned to her 80 year old husband,2933,543060,00.html “A Saudi Arabian father forced his 10-year-old daughter to return to her 80-year-old husband Sunday, after she was found hiding at the home of her aunt for 10 days, Arab News reported.”

UPDATE 9/09 It is not only the Saudi’s who have some work to do.  Conservative lawmakers in Yemen, where a 12-year-old girl died giving birth to her husband’s child last week, shot down an attempt to set the minimum marriage age at 17 earlier this year, CNN reports. The lawmakers kept the bill from reaching the country’s president by arguing that it violated Islamic law, which does not stipulate any minimum age for marriage.