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 Rising Criticism of Child Bride Marriages in Saudi Arabia
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. [2] 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. [3]

In August 2008, the daily `Okaz reported that a 70-year-old man had married a child of 10, [4] 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 for a dowry of 30,000 riyals (about $8,000). 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. [5] The Saudi Society for the Defense of Women`s Rights issued a communiqué in which it condemned the court`s ruling, and asked the Saudi Justice Ministry and the HRC to help the child get a divorce. [6]

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. [7] 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. [8]

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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." [9]

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. [10]

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. [11]

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. [12]

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Saudi Shura Council Sets Age of Majority at 18

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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. [13]

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. [14]