It is said that the Prophet Muhammad’s last and most beloved wife, Aisha, was nine years old when the two wed. Fourteen centuries later, their marriage is held up by many in Saudi Arabia as justification for the continued practice of child marriages. But last week, in a landmark ruling, a Saudi court allowed a 12-year-old girl to divorce her 80-year-old husband: a move that many hope signifies a turning tide inside the Sunni Islamic kingdom.
The girl, from a conservative town in Qassim province, was reportedly married to her father’s cousin last September—in exchange for a dowry of 85,000 riyals ($23,373), which was paid to her father. But the case became a cause célèbre early this year when the girl’s mother asked for the marriage to be annulled, on the grounds that her daughter had been raped. But soon afterwards, the court petition was withdrawn. “I agree to the marriage,” the young girl was quoted by local newspapers as saying. “This is in filial respect to my father and obedience to his wish.”
But by then, the marriage had become embarrassing to King Abdullah. (Already, Saudi courts were under fire for a 2009 decision by a judge to refuse an eight-year-old’s request to annul her marriage to a man in his forties—the judge said she had to wait until puberty before filing for divorce.) And so the state-run human rights commission appointed a lawyer to represent the girl, declaring itself “firmly on the child’s side”—and vowing to pursue the case with or without her mother’s support. Last week, the king discussed the issue of child marriage with UN officials. A few days later, the divorce was granted.
Experts say the next stage might indeed be an across-the-board ban on marriages for those under 16; currently, there is no minimum legal age for marriage. “This case is an investment in order to push for a law,” said Saudi rights activist Wajiha al-Huweider. Three committees, consisting of doctors, psychologists, social workers and religious scholars, have been set up to study the possibility.
Interest in child marriages in the Middle East has been spurred by a number of high-profile cases in the last year—like that of a 12-year-old Yemeni girl, Elham Mahdi, who died of internal bleeding after sexual intercourse with her much older husband.