December 4, 2013 Special Dispatch No. 5549

Renewed Debate In Saudi Arabia On Underage Marriage

December 4, 2013
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 5549

Underage marriage, particularly marriage between underage girls and older men, is common in some parts of the Arab and Muslim world, and occasionally comes up for debate in the Arab media. This happened recently following the case of a Yemeni 11-year-old, Nada Al-Ahdal, whose father wanted to marry her off to a much older man,[1] and another Yemeni girl, aged eight, who was reportedly married off to a man in his 40s and died on her wedding night.[2]

In Saudi Arabia, where underage marriage is also prevalent,[3] the issue rose to the headlines recently following the case of a 10-year-old whose father had forced her to marry an old man.

The Saudi media uncovered this affair after the girl came to school exhausted and was taken to hospital, and the school's principal reported the matter to the police. In their defense, the child's father and husband claimed that she was older than her reported age.[4] Following the case, the Saudi government press published articles criticizing the phenomenon of child marriage and calling for legislation to set a minimum age for marriage.

It should be noted that the Saudi Human Rights Association has for some time called to combat the phenomenon and place a limit on marriage age, and many Saudi intellectuals have joined this appeal. Recently, 14 Saudi human rights activists addressed a petition to the recently-appointed female Shura council members demanding the promotion of women's rights, including laws setting a minimum age for marriage.[5]

The following are excerpts from articles on the issue recently published in the Saudi government press:

Underage Marriage Is Proof Of Backwardness And Ignorance

In an article in the Saudi government daily Al-Yawm, columnist Amal Al-Ta'imi argued that the phenomenon of underage marriage in the Arab world is a product of ignorance and backwardness. He wrote: "The fact that a phenomenon like underage marriage exists in the public arena of the Arab world shows that we are not progressing but sliding backwards, to the pits of mental ignorance. [Underage] girls and the offspring [of such marriages] have paid the price of this mental filth that impels people to marry off girls who have not attained puberty or have only just attained it. This is mental backsliding that has very severe results.

"It is true that such marriages are not a [widespread] social phenomenon, but they [do] exist, even if their number is small... This issue puts us back decades. Underage marriage violates the girls' innocence and has [even] caused death on some occasions. A little girl cannot bear the demands of married life, neither psychologically nor physically... There are crimes that only a detailed law, invoked unhesitatingly and without exceptions, can stop."[6]

A Minimum Marriage Age Law Must Be Passed

Columnist and author Umaima Al-Khamis criticized the phenomenon of underage marriage in an article in the government Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, and called for enacting a minimum marriage age in Saudi Arabia:

"The late Sheikh Ibn Al-'Uthaymeen[7] supported a ban on underage marriage, saying: 'My view on this issue is that it would be preferable to prohibit it, although a number of religious scholars have said that, according to the ijma' [consensus of religious clerics], a man may marry off his daughter before she has attained puberty without asking her permission, because she does not understand what is good for her. According to some [of these religious scholars], this applies to a [girl] who is not yet nine years old. In my opinion, conduct befitting our era should prohibit a father from marrying off his daughter before she attains puberty and can be asked.'

"Where is the family law would have... translated [these] fatwas into legislation, so as to restrain cruel parents and set 16-18 as the minimum age at which a girl can marry?... The cases of violence that reach the media are but a small portion [of the cases that exist]. They are only a thin surface layer, behind which are numerous [other] cases that hide behind the norm of shame and social silence and are still being perpetrated against minors and against those who lack the ability and power [to oppose them]..."[8]

All State Institutions Must Combat The Phenomenon

Columnist Maha 'Akeel rejected all the religious and social excuses used to legitimize underage marriage, and called upon the state to combat it through legislation. In an article in the London based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, she wrote: "...A sizeable portion of society in the Gulf and in the Muslim Arab [world at large] finds the phenomenon of underage marriage acceptable. But the distinction is that, in the Gulf States, there are those who justify it on a religious basis, whereas in other societies the main reason [behind it] is poverty and customs.

"The religious justification [for the phenomenon] rests on the fact that the Prophet [Muhammad]... married 'Aisha when she was [only] nine years old... [However], many religious scholars have recommended avoiding underage marriage, including [Grand Mufti] 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Sheikh... who warns parents and guardians not to marry off young girls for money, especially to older men when the age difference between them is 50 to 60 years... Likewise, a Council of Senior Clerics member, Sheikh 'Abdallah Al-Muni', opposes the comparison to 'Aisha's marriage to the Prophet Muhammad... He said: 'The marriage of children today should not be compared to the marriage of 'Aisha, due to the difference in circumstances and zeitgeist'...

"There are those who justify underage marriage [by arguing that it is intended] to protect [the girls], but we have seen that the disadvantages outnumber the advantages. Studies have demonstrated that marriage at a young age endangers the girl's health and life. Statistics show that the younger the girl is, the greater the probability that she will die due to problems in the course of pregnancy and childbirth... For marriage exhausts the girl's body, especially if she is [physically] immature and ignorant [about married life]... It is the girl's right that they ask her permission before marrying her off, but it is illogical to consider a minor's opinion with regards to marriage when she does not fully comprehend the meaning of the word. Therefore, such marriages are null and void. Likewise, the girl's fitness [for marriage] can only be examined upon the conclusion of her physical development, which differs from one girl to another.

"Therefore, in light of the 'religious' and social considerations, the phenomenon of underage marriage must be combated, because it constitutes a violation of the girl's rights. Premature marriage [adversely] affects the girl's physical and psychological wellbeing, [her ability] to acquire an education, her social life and her natural development from childhood through adolescence to full maturity. It is the duty of the social, civil, government and religious institutions to inform girls and women about their rights, counsel their families, and also provide material support to poor families who possibly view marrying off their young daughters as a way of shedding part of the economic burden.

"Likewise, the state must pass a law that will set a [minimum] age for marriage, in the framework of the shari'a, to protect the girl against deranged people, and there is ample religious and scientific evidence to rely upon. The state must honor the International Convention on the Rights of The Child that it endorsed in 1989, as well as the [Covenant on] the Rights of the Child in Islam, published by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (currently the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) in 2004, which is intended to protect children from acts and customs that harm them medically, socially or culturally, and from exploitation in all its forms, particularly sexual exploitation... In 2008, the member states in the Organization of the Islamic Conference formulated a work plan for assuming responsibility towards women, which stipulated that 'it is mandatory to prohibit premature marriage or coerced marriage by all possible means.'"[9]

Saudi Women Are The Victims Of Subjugation And Racist-Like Discrimination

Following the incident involving the 10-year-old student, columnist Hala Al-Qahtani also referred to the issue of child brides, writing in the Saudi government daily Al-Sharq: "Underage marriage, considered one of the gravest humanitarian crimes that are forced upon women from a very young age, has not stopped to this day. Women are subjected to acts that are tantamount to enslavement and to being bartered for and sold in the name of marriage...

"Although women form half of Saudi society, they aren't spared the obstinacy of bodies that [are supposed] to serve the citizen [but] have not updated their laws so as to recognize [women and girls,] particularly after puberty, as persons with full capacity. On the contrary, [these bodies] practice disgraceful racist[-like] discrimination against [women] that finds expression in a series of random and illogical laws that doom them to a limited existence and a lifetime of undeserved punishment.

"The judicial authorities have not yet set a minimum age for marriage or [passed] any law banning and criminalizing underage marriage. [They think that a girl] becomes sufficiently mature to marry overnight, and if she commits a crime [after being married] she is therefore punished as an adult... This, before she even has the right to take out a family ID recognizing her connection to her children and authorizing her to manage their affairs vis-à-vis government offices or in school, or to travel with them. The law deprives [the woman] of this right and awards it to the man...

"In cases where no man is available, a woman is forbidden to even register the death of her husband or one of her relatives, and the system insists on having her son do this [in her stead], even if he is a minor... This is painful degradation and totally ignores the [woman's] role and her important status in the family and in society. If [the woman] has no son... she must ask the village headman or the tribal sheikh to perform this duty, as if she is a nonexistent ghost...!"[10]



[2] Al-Hayat (London), September 13, 2013.

[4] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), October 3, 2013.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), November 7, 2013. On the activity by the Shura councilwomen to promote women's rights see: MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 986, Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia: Historic Nomination Of Women To Shura Council – Alongside Harsh Action By Regime Against Women's Rights Activists, June 21, 2013.

[6] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), October 10, 2013.

[7] Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Salih Al-'Uthaymeen (1929-2001) was a prominent Sunni religious scholar in the second half of the twentieth century and was highly influential in the Salafist movement. A member of the Senior Clerics Council (Saudi Arabia's supreme religious institution), he was also a lecturer at the Shari'a Faculty of the Imam Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud Islamic University and a preacher at the Grand Mosque of 'Unayzah.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 9, 2013. On August 26, 2013 the Saudi government approved the "Protection from Abuse" law, intended to prevent all forms of domestic violence of all types: physical, psychological and verbal. The law states that victims of domestic violence must be provided with shelter and with psychological and physical care, and that punitive measures must be taken against the assailant. The law does not specifically refer to underage marriage, but the author of this article argues that it can theoretically apply to this phenomenon as well, since many in Saudi Arabia consider underage marriage as a form of domestic violence due to the physical and psychological harm caused to the minors being wed. She notes, however, that in the absence of an implementation code the law is presently toothless.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 28, 2013

[10] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 9, 2013.

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