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The Child Bride Debate

October 9, 2010

Another story in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News has caused much comment among the paper’s readers. The article is about a man who married a 12-year-old girl and consummated the marriage shortly thereafter. The tradition in the Kingdom is that there is no age limit for a girl to be married, but that the husband must wait for his wife to reach puberty. Here’s the article:

NAJRAN: A marriage official (mazoun) in the southern city of Najran has told a local Arabic daily that he had married a minor girl who is barely 12 years old and consummated their marriage after only two and a half months.

The mazoun, who has not been identified, told Al-Watan on Friday that his father in-law advised him not to touch her for a year, but his mother insisted otherwise.

He claimed that his mother, who was angry that he was treating his young wife like a sister, told him that there was no girl too young for marriage.

The mazoun told the newspaper that he brought his wife to his home and lived for two months together like a brother and sister.

“When my mother insisted I consummate my marriage, I had to summon up the courage for two weeks before I was able to have sex with her,” he said. He said when he first saw her, he was shocked by her fragility and added that he spent a long time trying to understand how to treat her. “We used to be together without any sexual contact. She slept in the bedroom while I slept in the guest room. All the time I used to tell her the story of Adam and Eve. She often said to me that she did not know why her parents gave her away to me,” he said.

The mazoun said his young wife has completed her sixth grade at elementary school and is now a better housewife than many university graduates.

Commenting on minor marriages, an official source at the Human Rights Commission (HRC) said the commission was making an effort to end this trend.

“If the marriage contract has not been signed, the commission will try to talk to the parties concerned, but if it is already signed, then it will question the mazoun who issued it,” he said.

The official attributed the occurrence of minor marriages to a host of economic and social factors and said the commission was committed to tackling it.

This story is the latest in many similar occurences of what the paper calls “minor marriages”, and goes to the heart of the debate in the Muslim world between those who take the example of the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th Century as the absolute and timeless determinant of how to behave, and those who say that Muslims should take into account the world we live in now in determining morality and social norms. In this case, those who believe that the mazoun’s behavior was perfectly acceptable quote the example of the Prophet when he married Aisha, his second wife, who was 12 at the time. 

Few Muslims would dispute that the words of the Quran are timeless. But many would say that the sayings of the Prophet and stories about him encapsulated in Islam’s second holy book, the Hadith, reflect the age and norms of the Prophet’s time, and cannot serve as the absolute and only guide for today. Hence among Muslims fierce debates rage about other social issues that keep coming up in the West as examples of Muslim “backwardness”, such as burqas, polygamy and execution by stoning. 

Those unfamiliar with the Islamic world might find the reader comments quite illuminating. All but one of the posts seem to be from believers. Those, like the Rev Jones in Florida, who think that Muslims are a monolithic bloc of like-minded people might be surprised to find that there’s as huge a divergence of opinion on religious and social issues in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries as there are in their own countries about how people should behave.

I find it sad that the gross generalizations to be found in some areas of the Western media have led to broad brush opinion about what Muslims believe. More than once I have had conversations with young Saudis in which they were eager to assure me that they were not terrorists, and nor were the vast majority of the people of Saudi Arabia. It’s a shame that a 16-year-old feels that he needs to say this because he is afraid that this is the prevailing opinion in the Western world.

Yes, there are traditions in some parts of the Muslim world that most Westerners will find abhorrent. But Glenn Beck, Geert Wilders and their supporters don’t tell us that there is a host of Muslims who also find them abhorrent.

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