Muhammad Al-Rashidi’s marriage was eventually put on hold after the governor of Hail put pressure on his father, but it did place the spotlight on a problem that is not limited to Saudi Arabia. In April in fact, an eight-year-old Yemeni girl sought out a judge to file for divorce from a man nearly four times her age.
Positions on the issue are not inconsequential. For Zuhair Al-Harithy, board member of the Human Rights Commission, “these marriages violate international agreements the Kingdom has signed. We are studying this issue so we can put an end to this phenomenon.”
In Saudi Arabia there are no laws defining the minimum age for marriage, nor any data on how many marriages involve children.
Although a woman’s consent is legally required, some marriage officials do not seek it. Fathers can marry off a one-year-old girl as long as sex is delayed until she reaches puberty and the groom and the woman’s guardian (which each woman must have) approve.
Ahmad Al-Muabi, a marriage official, defended the practice saying that a man “can enter a marriage contract with a one-year-old girl, not to mention nine years, seven years or eight years. This is just a contract indicating consent.”
For Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, a scholar and a strong opponent of child marriages, “there are different (religious) opinions regarding marriage, which is why we need the government to settle the issue through legislation.”
Human rights activists agree. They also warn that child marriages can hide unlawful relations.
Even Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh finds himself indirectly among the opponents of the practice.
“Islam has stipulated that both parties agree to the marriage contract,” he said. “The woman must express real consent to the suitor, and a guardian must not impose his choice of husband on her” or force her to marry someone she doesn’t want.