Saudi sheikh says child marriages are no longer justifiable

Comments by Sheikh Abdullah al Manie follows other recent public criticisms of child marriage, suggesting the government may be preparing public opinion for legislation setting a minimum marriage age.

RIYADH // A member of Saudi Arabia's highest religious body has said that Prophet Mohammed's marriage to a nine-year-old girl does not justify marrying minor children today because circumstances have changed in the intervening 14 centuries. The comments by Sheikh Abdullah al Manie, who sits on the Council of Senior Ulema, follows other recent public criticisms of child marriage, suggesting the government may be preparing public opinion for legislation setting a minimum marriage age.

"They want to prepare the public to understand that the old days are not like today," said Mekhlef al Shammary, a human rights advocate in Dammam. "It's a crime to give a 12-year-old to be a mother and wife. "This is ridiculous. Even in Islam it's not acceptable because the girl is not mature enough. She's a child - she's not ready for sexual relations." The marriage of young girls, often to much older men, has been at the forefront of public debate in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years. It escalated early last year after it was reported that a man had contracted to give his eight-year-old daughter in marriage to a 47-year-old man in order to pay a financial debt. The contract was annulled after a public outcry.

Sheikh al Manie is believed to be the most senior cleric to unequivocally denounce the practice of child marriage. Prophet Mohammed's marriage to young Aisha "cannot be equated with child marriages today because the conditions and circumstances are not the same", he said in remarks published in the Saudi Gazette and Okaz newspapers on Thursday. "It is a grave error to burden a child with responsibilities beyond her years," the sheikh said. "Marriage should be put off until the wife is of a mentally and physically mature age and can care for both herself and her family."

Sheikh al Manie's comments came a few days after Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al Obaikan urged legislation making marriage illegal for girls under 18. Waivers might be given in some cases by judges or the royal court, he added, according to reports in the same newspapers. Sheikh al Obaikan said the marriage of minors was a "grave error" and cautioned parents to "fear Allah and not marry their daughters by force" to men they do not want to wed.

Both Sheikh al Manie and Sheikh al Obaikan are legal advisers to the royal court. A day after Sheikh al Obaikan's remarks, the Saudi Gazette carried an editorial supporting his call for legislation. "There are some cases of social custom in which the sensibility of society must change before laws are generated to put those changes into legislation," it stated. "This, however, is not one of them."

Saudi human rights advocates have been increasingly vocal in pushing for minimum age legislation. They argue that it is needed to bring the kingdom into compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets the age of maturity at 18, and which Saudi Arabia has ratified. This type of marriage, although not widespread, "has to be stopped [because] it has so many negative consequences for the child", Saleh al Khatlan, the vice chairman of the non-governmental National Human Rights Society, said in an interview.

Mr al Khatlan added that the Society had recommended setting up a royally-appointed committee to study the matter and had asked the ministry of justice to order judges not to register marriages involving minor children. The role of money has been underscored in the recent media attention to the practice of marrying off minor girls. Such marriage contracts do not always lead immediately to sexual relations, which are often delayed until the girl reaches puberty.

Mr al Khatlan said he was not surprised by Sheikh al Manie's statement "because we know there are differences" among clerics on the issue. What is changing, he added, is that those opposed to child marriage are now less reluctant to publicly state their views. "I agree with the sheikh [al Manie] that we should really introduce legislation that deals with such cases," said Bandar al Aiban, the president of the government-appointed Human Rights Commission.

The Commission is doing its part - in consultation with other government agencies - to introduce legislation for a legal minimum age for marriage, he added. In this regard, statements from senior religious scholars like Sheikh al Manie "are going to be very helpful," Mr Al Aiban said. His organisation, he added, is "working on a public media campaign to warn against the dangers of child marriage and stress the importance of letting children have their childhood and go to school".

The practice has been sanctioned by some religious authorities, including Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, the kingdom's Grand Mufti. The women's rights activist Wajeha al Huweidar noted that many people who approve of minor girls marrying "think they are following the Prophet's footsteps" because of his marriage to nine-year-old Aisha. "That's why it's hard to change." These attitudes were vividly displayed during the latest case to be spotlighted by the Saudi press. After news reports criticised the forced marriage in Buraida of an 11-year-old girl to an elderly man believed to be in his 80s, the bride's father told Al Riyadh newspaper that he did not see what was wrong.

"This is a very old custom and there is nothing wrong with it whether religiously or socially," he said.