Failures to address the issue of child marriage in Saudi Arabia have come into the spotlight once again after a 15 year old girl forced to marry an elderly man fled shortly after the wedding.
The man was reportedly around 90, and paid a dowry of over $17,000 USD to marry the girl. Reports say the marriage was not consummated, as shortly after the ceremony the young girl locked herself in a room, tore her wedding dress in distress, and broke down crying.
The “husband” called her family in hopes they would reason with her. When the family saw the state the young girl was in, they took her back home and cancelled the arrangement.
The 90-year-old man claims he was seeking another wife because the old age of his current spouse, who is 80, prevented him from enjoying life with her “as husband and wife.” Over a year ago, the man had married another 15-year-old girl, an arrangement that ended in divorce when she fled just a month later.
Since the event first made headlines, a number of debates have surfaced inside Saudi Arabia. Many are blaming the parents for promising the young girl to a man who could be her great-grandfather. Others blame the old man’s perversions. Still others point fingers at a corrupt government unable or unwilling to protect women’s rights. Finally, some blame the nation’s clerics who have been complacent on the issue of child marriage.
As with most social problems, there are a number of variables that contribute to the issue. Undoubtedly, some fault lies with the parents, who agreed to wed their young daughter to an elderly man in exchange for a great deal of money.
Children should never be robbed of their childhood or exploited due to financial strains on their families, and no price justifies selling a child into a marriage of any kind. With an estimated 5,000 child brides nationwide, it is, sadly, not uncommon for Saudi parents to wed their children to elderly suitors.
It should be socially unacceptable for a young child to be viewed as a potential mate. While many in Saudi society have placed countless unfair and near-impossible expectations on women, men are left largely unaccountable for their actions.
Research has found Saudi Arabia to have some of the highest levels of gender discrimination in the world, with the gender inequality index ranking it 135 out of 146 countries.The result is a misogynistic mess, where men are often immune from societal expectations while women are left baring extra burdens.
We must work for a balance, where social guidelines about correct-conduct do not discriminate by gender and protect all groups within a population, particularly the most vulnerable.
Also to blame are views about marriage as a means to satisfy men’s sexual desires. As a result of these views, numerous rights violations against women are tolerated, leading human rights organizations to refer to Saudi women as “perpetual minors.”
In the case of the 90-year-old man, he sought not only to marry a young girl, but also to discard his elderly wife, a woman he ostensibly promised to care for and protect. Empowering men to pursue new wives once they have tired of their old ones makes a mockery out of marital vows given before God, and reduces women to mere objects.
Finally, while the Saudi Arabia government claims to be ruled by Islam, it has become clear that many rights-granting Quranic decrees are manipulated, ignored entirely, or subject to political interests or cultural traditions.
For instance, clerics have long been pressured to issue fatwas condemning child marriage in Saudi Arabia. In a recent clerical meeting, the issue of child marriage was again raised for the purpose of agreeing to and issuing a fatwa against the practice. Rather than taking action, the clerics stated that the issue “needed further research.”
The “young age” of Prophet Muhammed’s wife Aisha is often cited as justification for child marriage. Researchers have, however, found this to be a myth, based on centuries-old orientalist literature that aimed to discredit Islam. Scholarly research has concluded that Aisha was actually 20 years old (thus a legal adult) when she wed the Prophet.
In reality, the Quran gives women a number of marital rights, including a clear prohibition against forced marriages and the right to be treated with kindness: “O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness…live with them on a footing of kindness and equity.” (Quran 4:19).
For these reasons, the government and clerical establishment deserve some responsibility for the persisting issue of child marriage in Saudi Arabia. Rather than prohibiting the practice, they have continued to allow the Quranic rights of many young girls to be violated and trampled.
In sum, addressing the issue of child marriage in Saudi Arabia requires a unified effort on both the macro and micro levels. Families and individuals must protect the rights of children and support societal expectations that serve the greater good. The government must serve the people and end a practice that subjugates a significant portion of its population. Lastly, the clerical establishment must cease ignoring Quranic principles granting rights to women in marriage and society.