Saudi Arabia Shifts Course on Child Marriage

Theunis Bates

(Feb. 9) – For the first time, the Saudi Arabian state has intervened in the marriage of a preteen girl to an older man, leading some campaigners to speculate that the kingdom could be about to ban the cruel and archaic practice of child marriage.

The government-run Human Rights Commission (HRC) has hired a lawyer to review the case of a 12-year-old girl who was paired off with her father’s 80-year-old cousin last year. The girl’s mother opposed the marriage and attempted to secure a divorce, but suddenly dropped the case earlier this month with no explanation.

According to the local Okaz newspaper, her daughter had told the court that she consented to the ceremony, which reportedly earned her father a $23,000 dowry. “I agree to the marriage. I have no objection,” she said. “This is in filial respect to my father and obedience to his wish.”

 
A man walks with a young girl in Saudi Arabia.AFP / Getty Images

However, HRC lawyer Sultan bin Zahim told Reuters that even though the “mother withdrew” her protest, the marriage is still a “public rights issue that concerns the Saudi community.”

Other members of the HRC have hinted that the review will end with the case being sent back to court in the next few days and a divorce being granted. “Our main concern is to safeguard the child’s rights,” Alanoud al-Hejailan, a lawyer for the commission told the Times of London. “It is in the hands of the court but the commission is firmly on the child’s side.”

This sort of intervention is unusual in Saudi Arabia’s highly patriarchal society, where men have the power to decide who and when their children marry. The utter powerlessness of Saudi mothers was exposed last year, when a court in the city of Onaiza repeatedly dismissed a divorce petition by the mother of an 8-year-old girl whose father had sold her into marriage with a man in his 50s. The judge ruled that the woman did not have the right to file such a case on behalf of her daughter. (Another judge later granted the annulment, after the families of the bride and groom reached an out-of-court settlement.)

Many of the country’s hard-line Wahhabi imams claim child marriage is justified by the Koran, since the Prophet Muhammad wed his third wife, Aisha, when she was only 9 years old. “It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger,” Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s top cleric, said in January, according to the regional Al-Hayat newspaper. “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.”

However, although relatively few of these ceremonies are believed to take place each year, the international outrage they spark is embarrassing for the ruling al-Saud family. And in the past year, influential figures in the Kingdom have started to speak out against the practice.

“A child has the right to live her childhood and not be forced to get married,” Princess Adela bint Abdullah, the daughter of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, said earlier this month according to Al-Riyadh. “Even an adult would not accept that.”

And senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdullah al-Manie last month told Okaz that Aisha’s marriage to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century “cannot be equated with child marriages today because the conditions and circumstances are not the same.”

Human rights campaigners now hope that the international focus on this new case will force the government to speed the passage of draft legislation, currently being studied by a government committee, that would set the minimum age of marriage between 16 and 18.

“This case is an investment in order to push for a law,” Wajiha al-Huweider, a Saudi rights activist, told Reuters. “We need to affect public opinion and I believe that Saudi Arabia will issue a law preventing child marriages soon.”

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