RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The refusal of a Saudi judge to annul a marriage contract that weds an 8-year-old girl to a man in his late 40s has brought into sharp relief the tribal and religious forces complicating this country’s march to modernity.
Judge Habib A. Al Habib in the Saudi city of Onaiza said the girl can petition for a divorce once she reaches puberty. And although he also stipulated that no sexual relations take place before the girl is 18, his ruling has set off a firestorm of national controversy.
The judge’s decision, issued April 11 despite an appeals court request to reconsider his earlier approval of the contract, also showcases the deep splits in Saudi society between traditionalists and those favoring social and political reforms.
Outraged rights activists and newspaper columnists have condemned the judge’s stance and demanded an end to the still widespread practice of child marriage.
“The trafficking of child brides — a most reactionary practice that takes us back to the days of concubines [and] slave girls” should be outlawed “with absolutely no exceptions,” wrote columnist Amal Al Zahid. By “allowing such crimes against childhood,” she added, “we are incurring upon our own society...behavioral abnormalities and problems of which only Allah knows.”
Zuhair al-Harithi, spokesman for the government-run Human Rights Commission, told the Saudi press that child marriages “violate international agreements the kingdom has signed." Saudi Arabia has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as someone under 18.
But a large and politically significant section of Saudi society adheres to long-held tribal customs and sees nothing wrong with fathers marrying off their young daughters to sometimes much older men, often in the belief that they are protecting the girls from extra-marital relationships.
The practice is also sanctioned by many among the country’s ultra-conservative religious authorities, including Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti.
"If a girl exceeds 10 or 12 then she is eligible for marriage, and whoever thinks she is too young, then he or she is wrong and has done her an injustice,'' Al Sheikh told a Riyadh university audience in January as reported by the newspaper Al Hayat.
“Our mothers and before them our grandmothers married when they were barely 12,” he added. “Good upbringing makes a girl ready to perform all marital duties at that age," and those who say women should not marry before 25 years are following a "bad path."
Popular attitudes also play a role in the acceptance of child marriage, according to women’s rights activist Wajiha Al Huweidar, who has called for banning child marriage.
People often refer to girls being in their “full moon age” when they are 14 and 15, meaning they are then most physically desirable. Poets “are always talking about a girl at that age of the ‘full moon,’” Al Huweidar said, adding that “deep inside, both men and women, believe this is the best age to be married.”
Such attitudes are reinforced by the “myth” among elderly men that when they "get married to a very young girl they will get their youth back,” she added.
But perhaps more importantly, many people “think they are following the Prophet’s footsteps” because Muhammad is said to have married a 9-year-old girl named Ayesha, Al Huweidar said. “That’s why it’s hard to change.”
Actually, child marriage violates Islamic law, or shari’a, on two counts, critics of the practice say. First, a marriage contract is only valid if husband and wife voluntarily consent, which a minor is unable to do. Secondly, the dowry paid by a husband is the property of the wife, not her father, who would control it in the case of a minor.
Ayman A. Abu Laban, UNICEF’s Gulf area representative, said in a recent interview that the silence about child marriage “is now being addressed” in the Saudi media.
“As UNICEF, we are for having children enjoy their right of childhood before they get married, meaning they enjoy their rights in education, in health, in maturity, in recreation...and then they move into responsibility and be ready for marriage.”
Some Arab countries, including Tunisia, Jordan and Syria, have already set a legal minimum marriage age, Abu Laban noted.
So far, Saudi Arabia has not followed suit, despite a recommendation from the state-run Human Rights Commission to fix 15 as the legal marriage age.
The case has also drawn international criticism.
“Irrespective of circumstances or the legal framework, the marriage of a child is a violation of that child’s rights,” UNICEF Executive Director Anne M. Veneman said in an April 13 statement expressing her concern.
Two days later, a U.S. State Department spokesman said that “child marriage is a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights in our view...and we’ve made that point clear to the Saudi Government.”
Amid this week’s crescendo of criticism, Justice Minister Mohamed al-Issa told the paper Al Watan that his ministry intends to issue regulations that will "put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls."
The rules will seek "to end the negative aspects of underage girls' marriage," the minister said, implying an outright ban is not in the works.
Bandar Al Hajjar, vice president of the Shura Council and past chairman of the National Society for Human Rights, said in an interview that he was “expecting in the future probably there will be a law organizing this matter” of child marriage.
But if the government sets a legal age for marriage “a lot of people won’t obey this law,” Al Hajjar added. “First you need to educate people about the negative impacts of getting married [at an age younger] than 18 or 16.”
While marriage contracts involving minors do not always lead immediately to sexual relations, which are often delayed until the girl attains puberty, the increased press spotlight on the practice has underlined the role of money in such contracts.
The father of the 8-year-old Onaiza girl contracted to marry his daughter to his friend, who is 47, in order to repay a debt, according to attorney Abdullah Al Jutaili, who represents the girl’s mother.
In a phone interview, Al Jutaili said the girl is now living with her mother, who first raised the alarm by petitioning Judge Al Habib to void the 2007 marriage contract, which was concluded without the mother’s knowledge. She intends to appeal the judge’s latest ruling, Al Jutaili added. The girls’ parents are separated, he said.
The lawyer said he hoped the Onaiza case would spark reforms and galvanize those who seek change in this matter.
"Before this, many young girls were settling for their fate and suffering silently,” Al Jutaili said. “But this mother chose to fight back and I am very optimistic about that, especially with the attention this case is getting.”
GlobalPost on women's rights in Afghanistan: A setback for Afghan women
More GlobalPost dispatches on Saudi Arabia: