RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — An 11-year-old boy gave out invitations to his classmates for a big event his family was planning this summer — and it wasn't his birthday party.
It was his wedding to a 10-year-old cousin.
Muhammad al-Rashidi's marriage was eventually put on hold, his father said, after pressure from the governor of the northern province of Hail, who considered the elementary school student too young to marry.
The case is among a recent spate of marriages involving the very young reported in the media and by Saudi human rights groups. They have been widely denounced by activists, clerics and others who say such unions are harmful to the children and trivialize the institution of marriage.
Saudi Arabia is already rocked by a high divorce rate that has jumped from 25 percent to 60 percent over the past 20 years, according to Noura al-Shamlan, head of the research department at the Center of University Studies for Girls.
"We are studying this issue so we can put an end to this phenomenon," said Zuhair al-Harithi, board member of the Human Rights Commission, a Saudi government-run rights group. "These marriages violate international agreements the kingdom has signed."
Al-Harithi's group recently succeeded in delaying the consummation of the marriage of a 10-year-old girl after getting reports from medical centers in Hail that she and a man in his 60s had showed up for the mandatory prenuptial medical tests.
He said the commission wrote to the province's governor and head of Islamic courts urging them to stop the marriage.
But there are other marriages involving children that have gone ahead.
Inmate married daughter to cellmate
One involved a 15-year-old girl whose father, Muhammad Ali al-Zahrani, a death-row inmate, married her off to a cellmate who also was sentenced to death. The father's sentence was carried out July 21, when he was beheaded for killing another man.
Pictures of the wedding, held in the prison in Taif for the men, appeared in several newspapers. Media reports said inmates recited poems and delivered speeches in the presence of prison officials. The teenage bride and other women, as is the custom here, held a separate reception outside the jail.
The groom, Awad al-Harbi, and his bride were allowed to spend two nights together in a special prison quarters after the wedding, according to Al-Watan. Al-Harbi told another newspaper, Al-Madina, recently that his wife was pregnant.
There are no laws in Saudi Arabia defining the minimum age for marriage. Though a woman's consent is legally required, some marriage officials do not seek it. For example, a father can marry off a 1-year-old girl as long as sex is delayed until she reaches puberty, said one marriage official, Ahmad al-Muabi.
Known as "ma'thoons," these officials have legal authority to preside over marriage contract ceremonies. They ask the groom and the woman's guardian if they approve of the marriage and then give them the marriage papers to sign.
There are no statistics to show how many marriages involving children are performed every year. And it's also not clear whether these unions are on the rise or whether people are hearing about them more now because of the prevalence of media outlets and easy access to the Internet.
Minimum age law urged
But the phenomenon is not new, said Sheik Muhammad al-Nujaimi, a strong opponent of the marriages. He and other clerics, activists and writers have urged the government to pass legislation setting the minimum age for marriage and to resolve differences among the kingdom's religious authorities over the issue.
"There are different (religious) opinions regarding the marriages which is why we need the government to settle the issue through legislation," said al-Nujaimi.
Such marriages occur not only in Saudi Arabia. In April, an 8-year-old Yemeni girl sought out a judge to file for divorce from a man nearly four times her age. Her lawyer said she was one of thousands of underaged girls who have been forced into marriages in Yemen, an impoverished tribal country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Activists say the numbers in Saudi Arabia are not so high. They say the girls are given away in return for hefty dowries or as a result of long-standing custom in which a father promises his infant daughters and sons to cousins out of a belief that marriage will protect them from illicit relationships.
'The woman must express real consent'
Denouncing the custom, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheik, the kingdom's grand mufti and top religious authority, said recently a guardian should not impose his will on his children or promise them to their cousins.
"Islam has stipulated that both parties agree to the marriage contract," he said, according to Al-Madina newspaper. "The woman must express real consent to the suitor, and a guardian must not impose his choice of husband on her ... or force his son to marry someone he doesn't want."
Al-Muabi, the marriage official, told Lebanese-run LBC TV that because marriage in Islam takes place in two stages — a marriage contract can be signed months or even years before a woman moves in with her husband — that means a 1-year-old girl can be married off.
A man "can enter a marriage contract with a 1-year-old girl, not to mention 9 years, 7 years or 8 years," said al-Muabi. "This is just a contract indicating consent, and the guardian in this case must be the father."
Al-Muabi maintained such unions make sense in some cases, such as when a man is the sole guardian of many daughters.
"Isn't it better to marry his daughter to a man with whom she can stay and who can protect her and support her, and when she reaches the proper age, have sex with her? Who says all men are ferocious wolves?" said al-Muabi.
However, Sheik Abdul-Mohsen al-Obeikan, a legal adviser at the Justice Ministry, said a girl's consent is crucial.
"A marriage official should not conclude a marriage contract without the woman's agreement and without her signature," al-Obeikan, who is also a member of the appointed Consultative Council that acts like a Parliament, told Al-Madina. "Officials who ignore such instructions expose themselves to punishment."
Until laws are put in place to protect children, Saudi human rights groups have been speaking out against the practice.
"When girls are married off at a young age they will be deprived of education and of enjoying their childhood," said Suhaila Hammad of the National Society for Human Rights, a private Saudi group. "Their bodies won't be able to tolerate pregnancy and delivering children."
But there's only so much the groups can do.
Muraiziq al-Rashidi, the 11-year-old boy's father, told The Associated Press he will delay his son's marriage only by a year.
"God willing, we will hold the wedding next year," he said.
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