Saudi activists liken child marriages to slavery

The controversy over legalizing a minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia continued as members of parliament and human rights activists likened marrying minor girls to the slave trade, local press reported Sunday.

Activists in the Saudi parliament and the Human Rights Association lashed out at the idea that minor girls should be permitted to marry following comments by Saudi’s highest religious authority Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh that 10-year-old girls should be permitted to marry.

Marriage and other personal status issues are not legislated in Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries, but rather governed by sharia courts, which are based on interpretations of Islamic law. Marriage in these countries typically refers to the signing of a contract, which may stipulate an age at which the marriage can be consummated.

" The woman must express real consent to the suitor, and a guardian must not impose his choice of husband on her…or force his son to marry someone he doesn’t want "Sheikh Abdul-Aziz

Child marriage is not prohibited in Islam, but it is subject to restrictions, Sheikh Azeb al-Mesbel, member of the Islamic and Judicial Affairs and Human Rights Committee of Majlis Ash-Shura, the Consultative Council, was quoted as saying in the Saudi newspaper al-Watan on Sunday.

The bride has to have reached puberty and to consent to the marriage, he added.

The issue of marriageable age has come to a forefront in the past year as human rights activists protested the highly publicized marriage of two minors to men the age of their fathers and the divorce request of an eight-year-old girl married to a man in his fifties. In several such cases the girls did not consent to their marriages, which were arranged by their fathers in secret.

"It is unacceptable that her family take advantage of her childhood to sell her to anybody," said Dr. Talal al-Bakri, head of the council’s Social, Family, and Youth Affairs committee, noting that ne must be an adult and fully aware of what marriage entails in order to get married.

Sheikh Abdul-Aziz’s support of child marriage appears to be contingent on each party’s consent. In statements last year he noted that Islamic law requires both parties agree to the marriage contract.

"The woman must express real consent to the suitor, and a guardian must not impose his choice of husband on her…or force his son to marry someone he doesn’t want," he was quoted as saying.

Bakri called for putting an end to the practice of child marriage, which he likened to the slave trade, but added that the council had not discussed drafting a law to set the legal age for marriage.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory of an international treaty for children’s rights that makes 15 years old the minimum marrying age for girls, said Hussein al-Sharif, head of the National Human Rights Association (NHRA) Mecca office.

Sharif said he advocates making 18 years old the minimum age since this concurs with Islamic ethics and "creates stability in society and reduces the possibility of family disintegration."

NHRA intervened in several child marriage cases throughout the kingdom and managed to prevent marriages of underage girls with the help of the Emirs and Sheikhs of those regions, he said.

The association is also working with authorities on a law to criminalize violence against women and children. Setting a legal age for marriage would be part of that law.

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