21.04.2009: SAUDIS PLAN MINIMUM MARRIAGE AGE
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 RIYADH 000596
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/21/2019
TAGS: PGOV, PHUM, KISL, SA
SUBJECT: SAUDIS PLAN MINIMUM MARRIAGE AGE
Classified By: Charge d´Affaires a.i. David Rundell, Reasons 1.5 (b) & (d).
1. KEY POINTS:
-- (U) The new Saudi Justice Minister has announced that a "system to regulate child marriages" is under consideration. The Justice Ministry has constituted a committee of scholars to provide advice to the King on a minimum age that would be "best for society."
-- (C) According to Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Jubayr, the committee is expected to propose age 17 as the minimum age at which a young woman is competent to provide the consent to marriage required by Islamic Sharia. Justice Ministry sources say the minimum age will be 15.
-- (C) The publicity and attendant local outcry over child marriage cases has helped build public support needed for the government to take on religious hardliners over this issue, sensitive because Sharia doesn´t specify a minimum age for marriage, and the Prophet himself had a child-bride, in the belief of many.
-- (U) Saudi Arabia is a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
COMMENT & RECOMMENDATION:
2. (C) The Saudi government appears to be pursing a systematic strategy to neutralize opposition from religious hardliners to take action on child marriages, which most Saudis oppose but which are not explicitly banned under Sharia. This has included allowing publicity regarding certain egregious cases, to stoke public outrage and build support for action. As always, however, the King will move cautiously. The new regulations will include a recommendation for a minimum age, as well new and tighter guidelines for marriage officials.
3. (C) The Embassy has raised this issue in our discussions of human rights issues with Saudi authorities, who point to the many efforts under way to end the practice. Embassy recommends that the USG support ongoing Saudi government efforts to end the practice, and also offer assistance, such as judicial training and exchanges, particularly with other Muslim countries who have found solutions based in Sharia, to promote more consistent protection of children´s rights in Saudi courts. End comment and recommendation.
4. (C) STATUS QUO: Sharia (Islamic Law) does not specify a minimum age for marriage, and under the Saudi Sharia system, rulings on family law matters are within the ambit of individual judges. Their verdicts may be appealed, but given that Sharia is not based on precedent, Saudi judges have wide discretion when dealing with cases of child marriage. This explains why courts have upheld some of these marriages and annulled others.
5. (C) BACKGROUND: Child marriage is an ancient cultural practice on the Arabian peninsula that probably predates Islam. The marriages --which are not/not common-- generally occur among poor and less educated Saudi families, often for financial reasons. Fathers marry off their daughters to pay debts, or enter into "swap marriage" arrangements where each marries the other´s young daughter. Religious conservatives justify these marriages by pointing to the Quran, which implies that once a girl has reached puberty she is ready for marriage, as well as to the example of the Prophet Muhammad, whose wife Aisha was believed by many to have been only nine at the time of their marriage. However, many Saudis counter such arguments by saying that the Quran also requires a woman´s consent to marriage, and argue that girls not yet in their teens are not capable of deciding for themselves. Some scholars dispute that Aisha was only nine when she married.
6. (U) RECENT CASES: As noted in the 2008 Human Rights report for Saudi Arabia, over the last year the Saudi press reported a number of cases of child marriage involving young girls married to young boys or much older men, both by arranged marriage and without the participants´ consent or, in some cases, even knowledge. Several of these marriages were challenged in court. In a case that garnered international attention, a judge in the central Nejd town of Unayza refused to annul the marriage of an 8-year old girl to a man in his 50s. The girl´s father had arranged the marriage to a close friend to help settle his debts.
7. (U) CALLS FOR A MINIMUM MARRIAGE AGE: This media spotlight sparked intense public debate throughout the country over the issue. Most Saudis view the practice as abhorrent. In the past few months a growing list of local human rights
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organizations and religious scholars have called for an end to child marriages. The quasi-governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission urged the Ministry of Justice to establish a minimum age for marriage, highlighting that Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the 1996 Convention on the Rights of the Child. In November 2008, the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) recommended that the King raise the legal age of adulthood from 15 to 18. Other religious scholars have also opined that given that Sharia is not clear on the issue, the King should exercise his authority to determine a minimum age that would be "best for society."
8. (U) OFFICIALS WEIGH IN: The conservative daily, Al-Madina, published a two-part series on the subject April 19 & 20, quoting a string of senior scholars and other officials expressing their opposition to underage marriage. Sheikh Abulmohsen Al-Obaikan, an advisor at the Royal Court, favored banning marriage for girls under 18. He argued that the King had the right to direct his subjects to the better of two permissible choices (marriage and marriage over the age of 18), pointing out that some fathers marry their young daughters for personal or financial gain. He also called on marriage officials and judges to respect this age. The Director General of Marriage Officials emphasized that such officials are under strict instruction to refuse to conclude any marriage contracts without the clear consent of both parties, the implication being that a child is not competent to consent to marriage.
9. (C) REGULATIONS COMING SOON: On April 18, the newly appointed Minister of Justice announced that a system to regulate child marriage would soon be unveiled. He explained that a committee had been constituted to study the issue with a mandate to provide advice on a minimum age for marriage and suggestions to address the problems, such as debts and lack of knowledge, which produce the marriages in the first place. The Minister stressed that the regulation would not contradict Sharia, and that the King, in his capacity of ruler entrusted with the responsibility to guide his people, would promulgate the regulation to preserve the interests of society. In an interview with liberal daily Al-Watan, the Minister confirmed that there would be clear guidelines on a minimum age for marriage, though he did not specify what the age would be. Sources quoted in the article said it would be 15, while Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Jubayr told the Charge it would be 17.
10. (U) GOVERNMENT ACTIONS TO DATE: In meantime, as has been the case in other instances of judicial excess, Saudi Government bodies have intervened to correct several recent court cases:
A. In October 2008, a court in Bisha issued a divorce document to end a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and a 70-year old man.
B. In another case, the Human Rights Commission successfully gained annulment of a marriage between a 10-year-old girl and a 60-year-old man.
C. In January 2009, an 11-year-old girl successfully won a six-month court case in Taif freeing her from a marriage to a 75-ya-old man arranged by her 70-year old father. Her mother (divorced) was granted custody of the girl.
D. In April 2009, a judge reviewed the case of the 8-year old girl´s marriage cited in para 6, and ordered that she be divorced. RUNDELL