Child marriage still an issue in Saudi Arabia
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Controversy was stirred in 2008 when a prominent Saudi cleric saw nothing un-Islamic in a birthday party, but Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh strongly opposed celebrating birthdays. Now he opposes any change to traditional child marriage.
Saudi Arabia has a serious child-marriage problem.
It's emblematic of the nation's struggle between modernity and traditional Islam. But the lives of thousands of little girls are being destroyed as the Saudi government ponderously debates a solution.
Child marriage has been acceptable, even encouraged, in many Islamic states since the religion was born. After all, among the prophet Muhammad's dozen wives was Aisha, who is believed to have been 6 or 7 years old when the two were married. But in Saudi Arabia, at least, the practice slammed headlong into modern values last spring, when a Saudi court refused to nullify the marriage of an 8-year-old girl from Unaiza to a man in his late 50s.
Over the past few years, long-standing social practices in Saudi Arabia have been thrown into the glare of world opinion, embarrassing the state and forcing at least cosmetic changes.
In 2006, for example, a judge sentenced a young woman to 200 lashes and several months in prison for being alone in a car with a man she was not related to, where they were attacked and she was raped. Opprobrium from around the world rained down on Riyadh. President George W. Bush asked: "What happens if this happens to my daughter? I'd be angry at a state that does not support the victim." King Abdullah commuted the sentence.
In 2008, one of the nation's most senior religious authorities directed that two reporters for a mainstream Saudi newspaper be executed for publishing stories suggesting that religions other than Islam are worthy of respect. Once again, the cleric's remark spawned international outrage, and the cleric's order was ignored. Then came last spring's court ruling on that 8-year-old wife.
For centuries, clerics on the Arabian Peninsula have been issuing execution orders for religious "crimes"; women have been marginalized and punished to protect male malefactors; parents have sold little girls, too young to ride a bike, to elderly men. Hardly ever did anyone outside the region notice. But that was before the Internet, before blogs and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook - before almost anything that happened anywhere in the world was broadcast instantly to almost anyone who cared.
The hook that caught people's attention in last year's case was the judge's refusal to grant the 8-year-old a divorce, indicating that the state endorsed child marriage. The judge was willing to order the man not to have sex with the girl until she reached puberty, four or five years later. (If he violated that, who would know?) Once again, Saudi Arabia faced rebukes from around the world, prompting the justice minister, Mohammed Al Issa, to suggest that it was time for child marriage to end.
His ministry, he told a Saudi newspaper, intended to stipulate 18 as the minimum age for marriage, "to put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls." His intent, he added, was to "preserve the rights, to end the negative aspects of underage girls' marriage." Like unfavorable news coverage?
Well, that was almost a year ago. Still no law has emanated from the government, almost certainly because senior clerics control large areas of domestic policy, and most of them, including the chief cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, oppose this change in tradition.
Now a spate of new cases has been thrown up for public scrutiny. Last month, a 12-year-old girl, fighting to divorce an 80-year-old man who paid her father $22,000 for permission to marry her, suddenly dropped her divorce request. She failed to appear in court on the day the judge was supposed to issue his decision. One can only guess what happened, but most 12-year-olds would find it difficult to reject adult advice or commands about something like this.
Saudi Arabia is hardly the only state facing this problem. Last year, Turkey made it legal for 12-year-olds to marry, if their parents agree. The Turkish Statistical Institute estimates that one-third of the state's brides are under 18. In Yemen and Bangladesh, even among some sects in Burma, child marriage is commonplace. The victims, in those places and elsewhere: little girls who are forced into wasted, often miserable, lives.
Saudi Arabia has publicly committed to change its law, to protect the children. For the Kingdom, this is hard. But if Saudi Arabia, of all places, can change the law and recognize that little girls have the right to grow up normally, that will be an act heard around the world.
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. To comment, e-mail Brinkley@foreign-matters.com. Contact us via our online submissions form at sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.
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