RIYADH: It’s an almost weekly occurrence. Saudi citizens sit down for their morning coffee or tea, open the newspaper and read a story, sometimes highly censored, about a child marriage. Sometimes the story is of an elderly man who married a pre-teen girl. Sometimes the story is about a teenage girl raped on the night of her wedding by a husband a few decades older than her. Sometimes the story is about a girl who ran away on her wedding night.
Saudi Arabia is inundated with news about child marriage, particularly in the international media.
But while the government of King Abdullah is believed to support curbing the practice, his regime has yet to make significant efforts to challenge the country’s robust religious establishment on the issue.
That may have changed earlier this month when Saudi Arabia ‘s interior ministry announced the distribution of new marriage contracts which require the bride’s age to be recorded. While there has been no change to the law itself, which allows for young girls to be married off by their families, the move has been hailed by some Saudi women’s rights activists as a small but important step in the right direction and disparaged by others as meaningless lip service.
"In the past marriage contracts didn’t have fields for the wife’s age," Hala Aldosari, a Saudi women’s rights advocate and blogger told The Media Line. "Because there was a lot of local press coverage of a few situations in which underage girls were married to elderly men for a sum of money given to their fathers as dowry, the officials recently included this field in the new contracts."
"A minimum legal marital age is supported by most educated Saudis and some top royals," she said. "The resistance comes from the poor, the illiterate or religious scholars, who quote the prophet Mohammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was 9 years old. According to the religious scholars, the situation can be solved by allowing the marriages to be [legally] signed but suspending the actual marriage, thus giving the child-wife a chance to terminate the contract when she reaches puberty, by 11 or 12 years of age with most girls. Of course most child-wives wouldn’t terminate their marriage because they can’t return to their fathers’ homes, where they couldn’t stay at the first place."
Aldosari said that while the new marriage contracts were unlikely to have an immediate effect, improved documentation might help the movement against child marriages in the long run.
"The new directives given to officials in charge of marriage contracts is to fill in the actual age of the wife and pay special attention to child-wives," she said. "As you can see this is quite vague and can be left to the discretion of the officials. Besides, there is no law or rule that punishes the guardian or the husband who marries a child."
"The whole point of the new directive is just to document the issue," Aldosari continued. "A lot of the opponents of setting a minimum age have supported their argument against government interference through the notion that child marriage is not a phenomena in the Kingdom. This documentation may show that this is a common practice after all."
Women’s rights, human rights and religious advocates have long called on the Saudi government to set a minimum age for marriage. Public support for a minimum marriage age is believe to be high, with 80 percent of Saudi women and 67 percent of Saudi men saying they would support such legislation if it was introduced, according to a recent survey by YouGovSiraj.
The move to record brides’ ages was billed by government officials as a step towards preventing child marriage and follows a number of well publicized cases of girls as young as 8 married to older men.
The government’s new human rights commission intervened in a case earlier this in year in which a father married off his 12-year-old girl to his 80-year-old cousin for the equivalent of $22,600.
The elderly man, who lives in the city of Buraidah , stands accused of raping the girl after the wedding. He has previously married three other young girls.
There are numerous rumours that the government is preparing to announce a minimum age for marriage, believed to be 17 or 18, but there have been no official indications as to the veracity of such hopes.
Eman Al Nafjan, an influential Saudi critic and blogger, argued that the move was unlikely to change much.
"This step was only taken to pacify those requesting a minimum age limit law," she told The Media Line. "I don’t believe it will have much effect in deterring families that want to marry off their daughters at 10 or 12 year old of age. I hope that it was made to buy time and not as a permanent compromise."
Reem Asaad, a Saudi economics professor and women’s rights activist, was similarly doubtful of the change.
"Stating the bride’s age on marriage contract can be a misleading indication for change," she told The Media Line, adding that many births in Saudi Arabia go unregistered. "Unless this is a preliminary measure of strict ban of child marriage, I think it is wasteful and frivolous.”
"Implementation is key and therefore many questions remain," Asaad continued. "What is the minimum age of legal marriage? Will that be part of the package? What measures are taken in cases of violation? Pecuniary penalty? Imprisonment? Depose the guardian? How will violation rules be enforced? By which department or authority? Is there a clear set of rules publicly disseminated to the masses (for both education and warning)? Unless all the above is widely, clearly and transparently disclosed in a public statement to the people of Saudi Arabia , I have serious doubts on all attempts to rectify the situation."
Some rights advocates had a more optimistic view of the government move.
"While these new contracts won’t make it illegal for children to be forced into marriage, it will make it much more difficult," wrote Amanda Kloer, who blogs on child and sex trafficking at change.org. "Potential grooms will be forced to disclose the bride’s age, which could send up red flags for officials… Families who lie about a child’s age on the contract will have created a false contract for the marriage, possibly making it easier for the child to seek an annulment or a divorce in the future."
"Now, it’s not uncommon to hear sex between a 50-year-old man and his 12-year-old wife described as "rape", even if the act isn’t illegal in Saudi Arabia," Kloer added. "Such language was not as common several years ago. By many measures, the movement to protect children from forced marriage is moving forward in Saudi Arabia , and this newest provision brings hope."