Saudi Shura seeks 18 as minimum age of marriage

Manama: Members of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council have rallied against a fellow member who objected to a proposal to set a strict minimum age for marriages and said it would lead to disastrous results.

The proposal would set 16 as the age under which the marriage of any girl is strictly prohibited, even if the bride consents and her parents approve.

It also called for establishing criteria for marriage eligibility between the ages of 16 and 18.

Under the motion, the minimum age for marriage would apply to both men and women, and the age difference between the bride and groom should be carefully considered.

During the Shura Council debate on Monday, Council Member Mohammad Al Ali reportedly rejected the call for marriage age regulations, saying that complicating the issue would lead to “orfi” marriages that are not registered by the state.

Under such marriages conducted in the presence of two witnesses, neither spouse has any legal rights.

“Compliance with Western agreements is the drive for the consideration of rules pertaining to the marriage of minors,” Al Ali was quoted as saying by Al Hayat daily on Tuesday.

“Some countries have not codified such orientations and the codification and complexity of marriages will lead to a growth in orfi marriages.”

However, Latifa Al Sha’alan, one of the members who has been advocating for the minimum age, rejected the arguments and insisted that 18 should be set as the normal minimum marrying age.

“This motion is a real test for the Shura in the eyes of the public and we have to agree,” she said. “Today, we are looking into rules that are far below our ambitions, but I have no doubt that we will soon have a complete ban on marriages under 18. Major decisions that are seen by some as controversial often require gradual approaches.”

The government last month proposed that courts should be the only ones to draft marriage contracts if the bride is below 18, based on social and medical reports from government institutions and the consent of the bride and her mother.

The proposal was based on recommendations by an ad-hoc inter-ministerial committee set up to look into the marriage of minors in Saudi Arabia.

However, Al Shaalan and fellow Council Member Mohammad Al Naqadi said the government’s proposal should clearly specify the minimum age for marriage under all circumstances.

“In its current form, the government’s proposal could be exploited to marry a girl who is nine if the required medical and social reports are available,” they said.

Council Member Samia Bukhari insisted the age of the groom should not be in any case double that of the bride and that the difference in their ages should be minimal.

Several Shura members have been pushing on banning completely the marriage of girls under 16 and for the consent of courts, parents and the bride for those under 18 in a bid to curb child marriages mainly in the conservative areas of the vast kingdom where minors are often forced by their fathers to marry much older men.

Lawyers and human rights activists have often been at loggerheads over a minimum marriage age with conservative scholars.

Proponents of a minimum age argue there is a crucial need to educate families culturally and socially, and specify that the core of the problem lies in the ignorance of many families and the outdated customs and traditions that are still prevalent mainly in rural areas.

Those who support early marriages argue its advantages include preventing deviation in adolescence, and having a fully functional family.

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