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Too Young to Tie the Knot in Saudi Arabia

Abeer Mishkhas / 10 February 2009

In its effort to campaign against child marriages, the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) has been working with the Ministry of Health to prepare a report on the effects of underage marriages on girls.

The ministry issued the report in which it warned of the physical effects on girls made to marry at an early age, as well as on the offspring of such marriages. The report also specified the psychological effects of these marriages and said that deprived girls from their childhood are bound to result in mental illness.

The report was backed later by a senior member of the Islamic Jurisdiction [Fikh] Society in Saudi Arabia, Dr Muhammad Al Nujaimi. In his interview with Shams newspaper, which was carried by the Al-Arabiya website, he spoke out against underage marriages from the religious point of view, stressing that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, when it comes to marriage, the bride’s consent should be obtained. Obviously, this requires that she be mature enough to think for herself, which can hardly be said of an 8-year-old or younger. This is an issue that’s been around a long time. If underage marriage has become the current burning issue, this is not because of its novelty value, but because the media have given it more attention. It is only right for religious scholars, in common with the medical authorities, to come out and denounce these practices. Al Nujaimi’s words target the fathers who think they can marry off their daughters whenever they choose, and collect their dowries.

It is not a surprise, however, that some of the replies posted on the website carrying the interview were not very supportive of the Shaikh’s words. Some of them said that girls in the desert should be married early because they mature more quickly. Others said that by blocking these marriages people are depriving their daughters of their basic rights and leading  them to spinsterhood. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Dr Zuhair Al-Harithy, the spokesman for the Human Rights Commission (HRC), discussed the Society’s efforts to engage all the relevant government bodies in its campaign against the practice. He said that the commission is lobbying to establish a marriage age limit that all marriage officials must adhere to. They have also been in touch with the Ministry of Justice and several governorates concerning the cases that have been reported in the newspapers lately and are yet to be resolved.

In a comment on Dr Harithy’s interview, a reader who lives in France said that the commission should study those cases first to see whether the particular marriages work. He advised that the commission should not succumb to the influence of “imitation or Westernisation”. The reader went on to say that Arabic culture and traditions can make such marriages work, and that it is the best way to protect young men and women from corruption.

The reader’s remarks actually reflect quite a wide range of Saudi opinion. There are many people who think of early marriage as a protection of their youngsters from corruption — in essence, from the unregulated occurrence of affairs. Nonetheless, most people would not have gone under the age of 15. Some of the publicised cases in Saudi Arabia are of girls aged 10, 8, and sometimes even younger. Obviously some people think that the corruption of morals can only be avoided by depriving children of their childhood and innocence. But as we have seen in several cases here, early marriages can become a lucrative business, and at this point one has to ask who is morally corrupt here? Surely a law is called for that forbids this trade in young people under any pretext.

Abeer Mishkhas is an Arab writer based
in London. She can be reached at

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