In the West it would be seen as a dirty old man having sex with with under-age kids, and he would be in for pedophilia. But in parts of the Muslim world the same practice is encouraged by ‘god’.
There certainly is cause to protect cultural tradition, but as everything in life changes, some encrustations need to be broken as we as a species become more humane, enlightened and respectful. That goes specifically for religious conventions, which show a particular tenacity when it comes to surrender to the calls of change – because they supposedly are based on the direct demands of a divine will. Apart from every single religious text being written by humans, which alone makes any claims of heavenly authorship more than doubtful, it is also hard to imagine that a benign godly entity would wish institutional cruelty, inequality or injustice upon its creation.
Children in these cases of course are girls, and the adults often are older men. In April this year, a judge in Saudi Arabia upheld for a second time the arranged marriage between an 8-year old girl and a 47-year old man. The marriage was a result of the girl’s father trying to settle his debts with the man to become the groom.
While such outrageous violations contravene the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, it is of course the religious establishment of old men in that country that by and large is in favour of such practices. They claim that the prophet Muhammad married his wife when she was only 6-years old. This is one of the problems with religions: they deify social practices and then declare them to be eternal truths.
Fortunately though, despite the world-wide resurgence of fundamentalism, there are enough voices today that raise concerns and have the power to makes themselves being heard. In the past few months, activists, writers and journalists in Saudi Arabia have become more outspoken about child marriage and been demanding a minimum age for marriage enshrined in Saudi law.
In response to the public debate, the legislative Shura Council passed a resolution on November 24, 2008 setting the legal age of majority at 18; the Council though shied away from defining a legal minimum marriage age. As a result, protests continue. In a recent statement, Saudi human rights activists declared:
We will fight the phenomenon of child brides in our country by every legal means. We call for the passage of religious family laws to protect the rights of women and children within the family.
As the press articles below indicate, the marriage was in the end annulled on a second appeal, and Saudi Arabia’s justice minister apparently plans to enact a law that will protect young girls from such marriages. At the same time though, the arch-conservative kingdom’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, said according to the regional Al-Hayat newspaper that it’s OK for girls as young as 10 to wed.
It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger. A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong, and they are being unfair to her.
Sounds like it’ll be a long road for young girls to have their human rights protected, but at least activism is forcing the elite to rethink religious traditions.