By Tara Abhasakun
Regular contributor to Borderless News Online
A proposal for a new marriage law in Saudi Arabia might appear on the surface to protect women’s rights. But in reality, it ignores a host of issues that cause violence against women in a country that sells massive quantities of oil to the U.S. The measure is unlikely to be effective in a country still largely governed by ancient tribal customs that treat women as property.
Last month, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Justice Walid Al-Samaari proposed that women must provide verbal consent for their marriage to be valid and that marriage officials must “listen personally to women’s consent to matrimony before they write down marriage contracts.”
It’s unclear whether this legislative amendment has passed. But if true, the proposal is big news.
That’s because the country is notorious for treating women as 4th class citizens. Women in Saudi have far fewer property rights than men, and rape victims are often blamed for being alone with a man in the first place in a country in which the subjugation of women is enshrined in law. Adult women in Saudi are overseen by a male guardian their entire lives, who could be a father, uncle or even younger brother. Punishments for acts deemed criminal are often more severe for women. Last year, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, while the man escaped death and was sentenced to public flogging.
Even if the justice minister’s proposition is passed, there are several problems it doesn’t address. Among them are child marriage, as well as the very real possibility that a woman might agree to a marriage after her family beats her or threatens to kill her. Experts said those and myriad other women’s rights issues need to be ironed out for any new marriage laws to work — and that will be an uphill climb for a government whose sense of human rights is stuck in the Dark Ages.
MEN KILLING WOMEN RELATIVES IF THEY DIVORCE
One major threat women face is the possibility that male relatives will kill them if they refuse to marry a suitor selected for them, or if they get a divorce.
In 2010, Human Rights Watch highlighted a case in which a woman’s brothers tried to murder her several times after she divorced. The woman, Aisha Ali, was forced by her brothers to marry five men at different times, and was threatened with beatings if she refused, according to the human rights group. Ali divorced each of her five husbands, and each time her brothers locked her in a room with her young children and tried to kill her. That included one instance when her brother strangled her with a cord, which caused her to pass out and urinate all over herself.
After each divorce, Ali was sent to live with her brothers as part of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship law, in which women cannot travel or move freely in public without a male relative or a husband.
Aside from divorce, women can be killed by male relatives for other things. In 2009, two Saudi sisters were shot and killed by their brother for “mixing with unrelated men.” Saudi women’s rights organizations blamed Saudi religious police for putting the girls’ lives in danger by arresting the girls for associating with male non-relatives, a crime in Saudi Arabia, noted the Jerusalem Post. Such murders, often called honor killings, are a “daily occurrence” in Saudi Arabia. Even if the justice minister’s proposal is legislated, many women will continue to consent to marriage out of fear for their lives, experts said.
WHAT ISLAM SAYS ABOUT CHILD MARRIAGE
The fact that Saudi has no minimum marriage age laws is another issue the country needs to deal with for any new marriage laws to make an impact.
I spoke with Professor Hamid Mavani of Bayan Claremont College in order to understand the theological reasoning behind child marriage. According to Mavani, Saudi Arabian officials often use statements by the Prophet Mohammad in the Hadith, a collection of Mohammad’s writings, in order to justify social norms such as child marriage.
The Prophet Mohammad said that child marriage was permissible. The Koran, however, states that social norms must be applicable to the current time period.
“Since child marriage is clearly not acceptable today, so it can no longer be permissible. We have a legal position that one must do what is in the best interest of the community. It’s clearly not in the best interests of the girl to be married as a child,” Mavani said.
Imam Ani Zonnevald, the founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, an organization that seeks to promote interpretations of the Koran that are relevant to modern times, echoed those thoughts.
“There is absolutely no Islamic basis for child marriage. It is the absolute anti-thesis of Koranic mandate.” Zonnevald noted a fatwa, a statement of opinion on Islamic law, on forced and underage marriages published by the Canadian Islamic Supreme Council. The fatwa cites a Hadith verse about forced marriage. “A matron should not be given in marriage until she is consulted, and a virgin should not be given in marriage until her permission is sought.”
IN SAUDI ARABIA, WOMEN ARE HYPER-SEXUALIZED
Honor killings occur when a woman or girl marries against her family’s wishes, when she is accused of promiscuity, or when she refuses to marry the man her family chooses for her.
Speaking about the influence of Arab tribal culture on honor killings, Zonnevald said the objective of such customs is “controlling a woman’s sexuality.” Zonnevald explained in a Q and A series in Los Angeles entitled “Ask a Muslim,” that in tribal society, everything about women is sexualized.
“Not just her hair and skin, but also her voice.”
Mavani said many of Saudi Arabia’s issues with women’s rights are derived from its adoption of Wahhabism, which was formed in the 17th century. Wahhabism, he said, is a “perverted version of Islam. It is a school of thought in which any person with a differing opinion of Islamic scripture is ex-communicated. When someone is ex-communicated, they can be killed.”
“Wahhabism argues that customs of the Prophet were supposed to be static, not subject to change. I am arguing that they are subject to change, but they could argue the other way. I think any scholar would argue that their (the Saudis) version of Islam is almost a perversion. Phenomena such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are very much offshoots of this puritanical Islam,” Mavani said.
EVEN UNICEF NOT STANDING UP TO SAUDIS ON CHILD MARRIAGE
For years, individuals have fought to improve marital conditions for Saudi women — and for children’s rights there — but it hasn’t had much impact. Even institutions like the U.N and U.S Congress seemed to back down from confrontation with the Saudis over this issue.
In 2011, Saudi political analyst Ali al-Ahmed contacted United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) director Ann Veneman, asking her to speak out about child marriage in Saudi Arabia.
“Instead, UNICEF lauded Saudi efforts to protect child rights and even honored Prince Naif, whose interior ministry is responsible for overseeing child marriages,” al-Ahmed wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian. Others responded similarly to al-Ahmed’s request. Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel even said “We cannot decide for other countries what is appropriate or not.”
Mavani said he believes such failure to address child marriage in Saudi Arabia is related to oil politics.
“There are certainly cases of child marriage, and many of them are regarded to be perfectly legitimate, and that’s the issue. They (the Saudis) don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it, and that I find very problematic,” Mavani said of the issue in Saudi Arabia.
“I think it’s because they [international politicians] don’t have a moral backbone. I think the issue is that Saudi Arabia has a lot of petro dollars at their disposal, and I think they are able to buy influence. The American government knows very well that the Saudi value system is very different from the American value system, but I think that because of different interests like money and oil and so on, we remain passive and look the other way. And since it [child marriage] can be legitimized by religious sources, no one wants to get into this kind of battle with the traditionalists.”
NEW MARRIAGE LAWS WON’T WORK UNTIL SOCIETY IS OVERHAULED
When asked if he believes the Saudi justice minister’s proposition will improve marriage conditions in Saudi Arabia, Mavani responds, “I don’t think it will be very effective due to the social pressures on women inflicted by tribal culture.”
And even if the Saudi justice minister’s proposed amendment is legislated, experts said it won’t be enough. Saudi officials must enforce a healthy minimum marriage age. They must decriminalize rape victim-hood. Only when such laws are enacted will laws requiring women’s verbal consent to marry have any affect. As Mavani indicates, it may be difficult to enforce laws protecting women’s rights while patriarchal tribal customs remain prevalent in Saudi Arabia.
Borderless News contacted the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. to learn whether the amendment had been passed. In an email, the embassy wrote, “Under Islamic law, a woman has to give her verbal consent for a marriage. This is only a reaffirmation of a well-established fact.” It was never confirmed whether the law had passed or not.
Tara Abhasakun is a regular contributor to Borderless News Online, covering human rights, culture and other issues in the Middle East and Asia. Born in Thailand, she has family ties both there and to Iran, and is fluent in Thai.
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