At the Age of Eight Already Wife?
The continuous outcry of media and human rights groups in Saudi Arabia about the traditional marriage of underage girls with adult - sometimes very old - men has roused the Ministry of Justice. There will be reforms for a minimum marriage age, as the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" (18.4.) reports. Both spouses should be eighteen years old, the Minister of Justice Mohammed Eissa demands.
By this initiative a conflict with the influential clergy is pre-programmed, the correspondent suspects. For the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdelaziz al-Asheikh only recently declared, based on Islamic law, it was wrong to maintain that a girl that is less than fifteen must not be married. This was unfair to the woman. For his argumentation the mufti referred to reasons of natural law and biology. He pointed to differences in the beginning of the first menstruation and claimed, without any consideration of children's mental constitution and even their actual incapability to get married, "There are girls at the age of ten to twelve years who are marriageable."
However, a short time ago in Saudi Arabia among the population uproar broke out because a Sharia judge had refused to cancel a marriage contract between a girl eight years of age and a 47-year-old man. This verdict that the contract was legally binding and had to be kept to was twice approved by courts of appeal, although the reason for the father's "selling" his daughter was obvious: He had only financial interests. According to the strict interpretation of law being in force in Saudi Arabia the father has an almost absolute power of disposal over his minor daughters. The judge said the girl could dispute the marriage contract after reaching sexual maturity.
But this enraged the humanitarian enlightened sections of society. Various Islamic authorities think it was no longer acceptable to follow a pure traditionalism and to allow child marriages which in other parts of the world are assessed as sexual abuse, as violation of children. For example, the Shura Council, the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia takes the view that in Islam reforms have urgently to be put through of the laws on personal status and especially of the laws governing marriage. The health authority too judged that with a marriage at an early age a woman could suffer health problems. The Saudi-Arabian Human Rights Society in turn is based on a more "liberal" view of Islam, as it has been included to some extent in the Constitution of the Kingdom. So in several fields measures have been decided in favour of women - always against massive opposition of the traditionalist male clergy.
Men and Women: Free and Equal
Only in February King Abdullah has reshuffled the government. That for the first time a woman, the 52-year-old Nura el Fajes, got an office is regarded as sensation. She was appointed Deputy Minister and in the Cabinet responsible for educational establishments for girls. Her appointment was a "change for the better," said Nura el Fajes the daily newspaper "Arab News". Commentators spoke of the "greatest change in twenty years" in Saudi Arabia. In 1978 Fajes had finished her studies at King Saud University with a degree in sociology and in 1982 with a Master of Education in the United States. She is married and has five children. Her appointment, though only to a "subordinate" post, is seen as an encouraging signal.
The "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" wrote about forced marriages and marriages with children: "The real problem, however, is hardly caused by Islam but the customs of the Arab tribal societies." This was, inter alia, proved by a comparison with the Yemen which by no means follows Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam. In Yemen too the marriage of very young girls was common. According to studies by the local ministry for social affairs actually eighty percent of Yemenite women marry at the age of ten to nineteen. A quarter is already at the age of ten to fourteen given into marriage. The Parliament of Sanaa recently wanted to introduce a minimum marriage-age of seventeen years. However, after fierce opposition of Islamic-conservative forces the bill was defeated. In many Muslim countries reform movements nevertheless further insist on advancing especially the rights of women and on achieving a humanization of the gender relations against the traditionalist interests of men.
In view of the frequently invoked interreligious and intercultural dialogue in this context a look at the achievements of Christian marriage may be allowed. It was an unparalleled success for the history of civilization that the faith in Christ prepared the way for a new view of personality, the partnership between men and women as equal images of God. It took admittedly still a long time, through the centuries of feudalism, until the gender relations were reorganized in the sense of a partnership of equal and free people. But entire social conditions were humanized by the Christian respect for and achievement of monogamy, based on the free declaration of intent and power of decision of independent partners, regardless of the interests of the parents or the clans of the ancestors.
A glance at the strange and archaic habits of Islamic countries could also waken the supposedly enlightened nations to be careful anew for the high humanitarian good that is important for the universal history of mankind; they are in danger of possibly forfeiting it if they continually have a low opinion of marital fidelity and bond. The struggle of Islamic women's rights campaigners and Muslim scholars for the humanization of marriage and of the marital life is anyway calling for searching our conscience. It is important also for us to recognize and appreciate anew the socially and individually high value and the special dignity of monogamy concluded for life, the mutual marital voluntary agreement, and - in Christian terms - its sacramental grandeur.