The Saudi press has lately been discussing the custom of child bride marriage, especially cases of middle-aged or elderly men taking prepubescent girls for their wives. The religious justification for this custom, which has been prevalent in Saudi Arabia and in many Muslim societies since the early Islamic era, is that the Prophet Muhammad married his wife 'Aisha when she was only six years old.
Recent press reports on child bride marriage in Saudi Arabia sparked a wave of criticism among columnists and social activists, who called for abolishing the custom and for setting a minimum age for marriage in Saudi law. In response, on November 24, 2008, the Saudi Shura Council passed a resolution setting the legal age of majority at 18. However, the council refrained from explicitly defining this as the minimum age for marriage, reflecting the difficulty it faces in confronting this well-entrenched practice.
At the same time, the council's resolution leaves room for hope that the religious law permitting child marriages may be amended. It should be noted that at least two religiously based practices have been previously changed in Saudi Arabia. The first is slavery. In 1962, King Faisal bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz issued a decree "abolishing all [forms of] slavery" and freeing all the slaves in the kingdom.  The second is the Jizya (the poll tax on non-Muslims), which is no longer enforced in the kingdom.
The following is a review of the recent press reports about underage marriage, the views of clerics who have addressed this custom, the efforts of various human rights organizations to combat it, and articles by Saudi columnists condemning this practice.
Child Brides - A Prevalent Phenomenon in Saudi Arabia
The following are some examples of press reports from the recent year on cases in which little girls were married to men over 50.
In July 2008, the Saudi daily Shams reported that residents in the city of Hail were trying to stop the marriage of a 10-year-old girl to a man of 60, on the grounds that the girl's innocence was being violated and that her father was selling her to her future husband.  The Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) urged the Hail district governor to prevent the marriage, arguing that it contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory. 
In August 2008, the daily 'Okaz reported that a 70-year-old man had married a child of 10,  and in the same month, a court in the 'Uneizah district rejected a plea to annul the marriage of an eight-year-old girl whose father had married her to a man of 58. The court suggested that the husband divorce her and receive back the dowry, but the latter refused, saying that he had done nothing wrong in marrying the girl. 
Child marriages sometimes involve young bridegrooms as well. On March 18, 2008, Shams announced the betrothal of the youngest bridegroom in the Saudi kingdom: an 11-year-old boy who was to marry his 10-year-old cousin during the summer vacation.  The Saudi Justice Minister denied the story, saying that the bridegroom and bride were aged 19 and 14, respectively. The HRC nevertheless appealed to the ministry against the marriage, arguing that in either case it contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines anyone under 18 as a minor. 
Saudi Clerics: Child-Bride Marriages Are Permitted
The Saudi religious establishment is generally supportive of child bride marriages. Some clerics who addressed this issue cited the example of the Prophet's marriage to 'Aisha. For example, Jeddah marriage and divorce official Ahmad Al-Ma'abi said on a June 2008 program on Lebanon's LBC TV that a girl may marry and have sexual intercourse from the age of nine, arguing that the Prophet Muhammad had married 'Aisha when she was six and had consummated the marriage when she was nine. Al-Ma'abi added that, in Yemen, girls often married at the age of nine or 10. He concluded that as long as the father of the bride consents to the marriage and is present at the ceremony, as required by religious law, "the marriage is obviously legal." 
A similar opinion was posted on the website www.islamtoday.net, which is supervised by well-known Saudi Wahhabi sheikh Salman Al-'Oda. The article stated that Islam attributes no importance to the age of the bride, and that intercourse is permitted as long as the girl is able to cope with the act and its implications. The article also criticized the opponents of child marriage and those who deny that the Prophet married 'Aisha when she was six. 
Saudi Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal-Sheikh has been inconsistent in his position on child marriage. On August 23, 2008, he advised parents to refrain from marrying their daughters to men who are their seniors by 50 years or more. Such a marriage, he stated, reflects a lack of conscience on the part of the parents, violates the girl's chastity, and may lead her to sin. He added that girls in such marriages suffer while their parents live in comfort on the dowries they receive from the groom. 
Conversely, on January 14, 2009, the Mufti issued a fatwa permitting the marriage of girls under 10, stating that those who oppose this are mistaken and are causing harm to women. 
Saudi Shura Council Sets Age of Majority at 18
In a November 17, 2008 Shura Council session, several council members demanded penalties for men who marry girls under the age of 18. Dr. Talal Al-Bakri, chairman of the Shura Council family, youth, and social affairs committee, said that child marriage was tantamount to trafficking in children, and urged the council to put an end this practice by setting 18 as both the legal age of majority and the minimum age for marriage. He stressed that families must not exploit girls by selling them to any potential buyer, but should respect their wishes and ask them if they consent to the match. 
The calls of Shura Council members, and pressure by social activists, led the council to pass the November 24, 2008 resolution setting the age of majority at 18 for both men and women. 
Saudi Clerics against Child-Bride Marriages
Some Saudi called to abolish underage marriage. Shura Council Member and Justice Ministry advisor Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, whose usually expresses the position of the Saudi government, said that the Justice Ministry had banned marriage officials from marrying underage brides. He added that girls must not be forced to marry against their will,  and that fathers who force their daughters to marry should be punished and should lose their status as their daughters' legal guardians. 
Dr. Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, member of the Saudi Shari'a Academy - a state institution - demanded a ban on underage marriage. In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Watan, he called on parents who had already arranged such a marriage to postpone it until both the bride and bridegroom come of age. He stressed that the practice is not sanctioned by Islam, and that fathers who marry off their underage daughters must therefore be punished. As for the minimum age for marriage, he said that 15 was not old enough, and that fathers must wait until their daughters are at least 17 before bringing up the subject. Even then, he stressed, the marriage should only take place with the girl's consent. 
Saudi Human Rights Commission: Underage Marriage Contravenes UN Convention for Rights of Child
HRC President Turki Al-Sudairi characterized underage marriage as a human rights violation, saying that contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, because it deprives the underage bride and/or groom of their childhood. Al-Sudairi called on the Saudi authorities to put an end to the practice, and to raise Saudi families' awareness of its negative consequences. He stressed that the bride had the right to accept or reject a proposed match, and that, according to the Shari'a, her consent was a basic condition for the validity of the marriage contract.  HRC spokesman Dr. Zoheir Al-Harethi stated that the organization had prevented the marriage of a 10-year-old to a man of 60.  'Okaz reported August 9, 2008 that the Justice Ministry, in cooperation with other government agencies, had approved a charter banning the marriage of girls under 14. 
Dr. Suhaila Zain Al-'Abedin, chair of the NHRS information and research center, said that a child had no future when married to a man her grandfather's age, and compared this practice to the crime of burying girls alive, which had been prevalent in the pre-Islamic Arab society. She too stressed that fathers who arranged such marriages must lose their guardianship over their daughters. She called on marriage officials to verify the age of the bride by exposing her face and confirming the authenticity of her identification papers, and suggested that women officials should be appointed in order to prevent fraud. She stated that marriage officials who approved underage marriage should be punished, and that 18 must be set as the minimum age at which a person is physically, mentally, and socially ready for marriage. 
On January 1, 2009, the daily 'Okaz reported that the HRC would submit a recommendation to senior Saudi authorities to set the minimum age of marriage at 15 for girls. 
Women's Campaign against Child Marriage
Especially active in the effort to stop the practice of underage marriage is the Saudi Society for the Defense of Women's Rights. As part of a campaign initiated by Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huweidar, it recently published a seven-minute video titled "I Am a Child, Not a Woman," which presents newspaper reports on child brides in Saudi Arabia, as well as interviews with Saudi girls voicing their opposition to premature marriage and demanding that it be banned. 
A communiqué issued by the society on September 8, 2008 characterized underage marriage as a violation of the rights of the child, and demanded that a minimum legal age for marriage be set. On September 23, 2008 (Saudi National Day), the society submitted a petition to the HRC and to the Saudi National Human Rights Society in which it demanded that the minimum age for marriage be set at 17 for girls and 18 for boys, and stressed that all persons must be free to choose their spouses without coercion or intervention by their families. 
A communiqué recently issued by Saudi human rights activists stated: "We will fight the phenomenon of child brides in our country by every legal means, work to ban it by law, and warn of its harmful consequences by means of scientific studies, articles and media interviews... [We] call for the passage of religious family laws to protect the rights of women and children within the family..." 
Saudi Health Ministry Report on Child Marriage
A special report by the Saudi Health Ministry stated that child bride marriages were "one of the primary causes for the emergence of physical and psychological problems... [and for] the rising incidence of disease within the family and society, which are a burden on the health system." Among the physical problems mentioned in the report were menstrual problems, infertility and vaginal tearing, as well as osteoporosis and frequent caesarian surgeries due to pregnancy and childbirth at a young age. As for psychological problems, the report stated that the early withdrawal of maternal love and the sudden termination of childhood caused anxiety and marital problems, among other difficulties. 
In response to this report, Shari'a Academy member Dr. Muhammad Al-Nujaimi said that girls must not wed before the age of 15. He recommended that a medical committee be established to determine whether a girl is ready and willing to be married. 
Saudi Columnists: Child Marriage Tantamount to Murder of Childhood; Religious Establishment Must Intervene
Articles in the Saudi press likewise condemned the phenomenon of underage marriage, especially the case in which the Saudi court sanctioned the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a man in his fifties. Columnists characterized these marriages as a crime against humanity, society, and women's rights.
In an article titled "The Murder of Childhood" in the Saudi daily Al-Yawm, columnist Muhammad Al-Bakr wrote: "Marrying off an eight-year-old girl is an act that harms society, contravenes the very meaning of childhood, offends humanity, and constitutes the exploitation of a little girl who barely understands what is going on around her. The court's ruling [which denied her the right to divorce her husband] not only harms her, but constitutes a dangerous precedent that threatens all the girls [in our society], and enables fathers to sell their young daughters… This is not just the case of a single mother wanting to protect her daughter. It is a [general] social issue, [because] the verdict applies to all underage Saudi girls… How can we keep silent in the face of this flagrant offense [committed by] marriage officials who permit little girls to be married without even asking [their opinion]?..." 
In an article in the daily Al-Jazirah, columnist Jasser 'Abd Al-'Aziz called on the religious establishment to intervene and stop this practice: "Everyone needs to [take part in] fighting this strange phenomenon… beginning with the mosque imams, who must address this perversion. It is paramount that they address it in their Friday sermons, which are supposed to deal with problems in the religious [and general] conduct of [Muslim] society… [When] a father [marries off his underage daughter], doesn't he realize that he is turning her into merchandise to be bought and sold, denying her humanity, and treating her like a lowly slave? Does Muslim law sanction this? If such acts contravene Muslim law, and corrupt [our] society and norms, why do the clerics, mosque imams and preachers remain silent? Why do the intellectuals, educators and cultural [leaders] remain silent?..." 
In another Al-Jazirah article, columnist 'Abdallah bin Sa'd Al-'Abid wrote: "Child marriage can cause severe psychological problems… Physically, childbirth at a very young age can be life-threatening. Why do the human rights organizations acquiesce to these marriages in a country that is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child? In order to stop this phenomenon, fathers who marry off their underage children must be punished, as well as marriage officials who permit it.
"The relevant authorities must take the following steps: use the media to increase awareness [of the need] to stop this practice; engage various education institutions - mosques, schools and universities - [in preventing it]; pass a law setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage, and restrict the permissible age gap [between the bride and groom], perhaps to a maximum of 15 years…" 
Columnist Nasser Al-Hujailan called to establish an organization that would protect children from premature marriage: "There is no choice but to take some effective measures to minimize the threat posed to society [by this phenomenon] and the damage it may cause. [This can be done] by establishing an organization to protect our children from [premature] marriage, which would be subordinate to the Human Rights Commission [in charge] of protecting women and children against violence. This organization should be allowed to continue functioning even if a law is passed setting a minimum age for marriage…" 
*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 Shams (Saudi Arabia), July 11, 2008.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), July 16, 2008. Saudi Arabia joined the convention in 1996, and undertook to submit reports every five years on this issue to the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), August 11, 2008.
 Shams (Saudi Arabia), March 18, 2008.
 Shams (Saudi Arabia), July 21, 2008. In the end, the marriage did not take place.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 18, 2009.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 25, 2008.
 Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2008.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 6, 2008.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 1, 2008.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 26, 2008.
 Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2008.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), August 9, 2008.
 Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2008.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 1, 2009.
 www.sawomanvoice.com, January 14, 2009. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 2023, "Saudi Society for the Defense of Women's Rights Launches Internet Campaign to Ban Child Marriage by Law," http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/2023?auth=7af779653df832cc12e944539bde4be9.
 Shams (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2009.
 Shams (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2009.
 Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), September 9, 2008.
 Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), July 21, 2008.
 Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), August 28, 2008.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), July 20, 2008.