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Child marriage case showcases deep splits in Saudi society

Judge approves marriage of 8-year-old girl amid controversy in country where child marriage is still widespread.

Grooms take part in a mass wedding ceremony in Riyadh, June 24, 2008. Controversy has been swirling recently around Saudi Arabia's marriage laws following a judge's decision to allow the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man. (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

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.