The case of the Saudi judge upholding the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a man 50 years her senior is so very wrong on innumerable levels and is a step back in the otherwise forward progress of the Kingdom.
Indeed, much of the progress in the Muslim world at large seems to consist of taking two steps forward and one step back. In Saudi Arabia, few doubt the popularity of the modernising King Abdullah. He has, for example, initiated the establishment of several women’s universities and has even declared, to the American journalist Barbara Walters, that he believes “the day will come when women will drive.”
One of the reasons Saudi Arabia is a land of two steps forward, one step back is that the religious establishment cannot publicly seem to be readily giving up their say in the moral governance of Saudi society: a “right” they won many decades ago. As other countries in the Arab world have proven, it takes a drastic event for the more conservative elements to step back and allow the train of progress through.
Take, for example, the tragic fire that occurred in a Saudi girls’ school in 2002 when 15 students burned to death – allegedly as a result of the guards not allowing them to leave the building as they weren’t covered up. The tragedy prompted the government – under the effective control of then Crown Prince Abdullah – to take away the mandate for girls’ education from the religious establishment and give it to the Education ministry.
Regarding the current case of the eight-year-old girl, the unspoken issue is clearly the marriage of the Prophet Mohammed to Aisha who, according to some accounts, was as young as nine years old. This allegation is entirely unproven. According to senior Islamic scholars (including Dr Muzammil Siddiqi, the respected former director of the Islamic Society of North America), there is no evidence that Aisha was in fact nine years old; estimates of her age vary but she could even have been as old as 24.
It has to be remembered here that until a few decades ago, unlike in the West, there was no authority in the Arabian Peninsula recording dates of birth. In fact, my own Kuwaiti grandmother’s passport states that she is barely six years older than my late father (1933 and 1939 respectively). This is a highly unlikely scenario; my mother tells me that my grandmother is easily 16 years older than my dad. Still very young by today’ standards to be a mother, but it was a harsh world then in the Gulf.
The issue of adolescent relationships is a matter of considerable concern, even in the West. According to the UK’s Family Planning Association, in 2005 there were 55,000 teenage pregnancies in Britain alone, some as young as 13. This number is down from a peak of 95,000 five years earlier. In the USA, teenage pregnancies are on the rise with the latest statistics showing that in 2006 there were 139,000 teenage pregnancies, or 22 for every 1,000 girls. This number is an even more astounding 32 per 1,000 teenage Jewish girls in Israel, and is even higher for Muslim Israeli girls.
To those who want to single out Saudi Arabia for particular criticism, I would say they are not alone.
The most encouraging issue to arise from the horrific marriage of this poor eight year old girl is the fact that condemnation isn’t just coming from abroad. The deafening silence of previous years has been broken. Saudis – liberals and conservatives alike – are speaking out against this barbaric act.
Christoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told me that “the Saudi media has become less censored in recent years and is more able to reflect what, in this case, is clearly public anger shared by many in government over the actions of a father who pawned his daughter and a judge who acts like he’s part of the deal”.
In a clear split between the religious establishment and the government, the Human Rights Commission, a Saudi government run organisation, said it “opposes child marriages” and that they “violate international agreements that have been signed by Saudi Arabia and should not be allowed”.
Even more interesting is the recent condemnation of the judge’s ruling by Wajeha al-Huwaider, the co-founder of an organisation known as the Society of Defending Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia whose very existence was unthinkable just a few years ago. Ms al-Huwaider went as far as telling CNN that certain actions (read those by the religious establishment) “keep us backward and in the dark ages” and called on the “minister of justice and human rights groups to interfere now” and “end this marriage deal”.
This case proves that not every parent is fit to be one; the same may apply to the parents of the British and American teenage girls who become pregnant. Would-be parents ought to be subject to a parenthood exam – or even a licence. After all, isn’t raising a child at least as challenging as driving a car? Likewise, mothers in Saudi Arabia must be given custody of their children and allowed to represent their interests in court. As King Abdullah said: “The day will come”.
In the land of two steps forward one step back, let’s just hope that it doesn’t take another tragedy for that to occur.
This article was published in The National on December 28, 2008.