Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

Marriage of Minors in Saudi Arabia: Is Betrothal Obsolete?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

A growing debate has emerged in Saudi Arabia over a controversial court decision to uphold the marriage of an 8 year old girl to a 47 year old man. The debate over child marriage has developed into a critical issue for Saudi  Arabian politics and human right groups. The father, the sole parent with custody, consented to the marriage of his daughter with the provision that it will not be consummated until she reaches puberty. Although her mother’s petition to block the marriage was denied, the judge has ruled the girl can file for divorce on her own behalf when she reaches puberty.

There is no parallel in contemporary Western culture to which one can compare such an arrangement. In modern times, the consummation of a marriage takes place relatively soon after the wedding. The closest analogy is the obsolete practice of “betrothal.” Setting aside the wisdom of  a “February-October marriage,” the legal aspects of this case are governed by universal principles of contract as familiar to the West as to Islam and those who wish be governed by Sharia law should adhere its standards.

In Islam, a wedding usually beings with the signing of a Nikah, an agreement of consent by the bride and groom. This consent is essential to legal integrity as well as a major factor illustrating the legitimacy of the marriage. Just as in Western culture, a minor’s  consent is meaningless. Therefore, until this girl is  no longer a minor and free to choose to consent or not consent, the marriage contract is not final. Thus the bride’s ability to annul the marriage before its consummation is an absolutely necessary protection.

The Saudi government has been quick to respond to the criticism promising “to put an end to arbitrariness by parents and guardians in marrying off minor girls.” Justice Minister Mohamed al-Issa’s statement lacks specifics, suggesting that the practice will continue. Will reforms consider the reasons for this particular betrothal–the settlement of some of the father’s debts be admitted to be “‘arbitrary?” It seems

to us it is worse than arbitrary, it constitutes the sale of a human being into marriage, something that is not part of Islamic law. (In Islam the dowry is not paid to the brides family, but is a gift to the bride herself that also doubles as contingent bequest and alimony against the possibility of the husband’s death or decision to unilaterally divorce.)

Are there any positive elements to the betrothal of a minor? In any case where the objective is the interest of the parent rather than the child, one is hard pressed to explain how this does not constitute the exploitation of children. In the contemporary environment the practice of committing underage women to marriage seems to cheapen the value of family within the community.

If the contemplated changes provide genuine protection to the bride, it would certainly be a welcomed reform to Saudi law. However, if  it is only an announcement to appease the critics, a cosmetic change with no substantial effect then it is a hypocritical lip-service to Western mores,  “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Islam is the religion that banned female infanticide, gave women rights of inheritance, and the right to speak up on political issues. Muslims must accept our God-given responsibility to defend the rights of women and girls as a point of integrity and honor before the world community.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D. and Imran Malik
Minaret of Freedom Institute