"Without mercy or compassion, he undressed amidst my screams. I felt the room become smaller ..."
That is how Malak, age 12, from the city of Jubail in eastern Saudi Arabia recalled the story of her marriage, which had no preludes, except for a "barbarous rape", followed by the ambulance that took her to the emergency room.
The story of Malak’s marriage was repeated with Fatima, Rasha, Abeer, and most recently, the 'Onaiza girl' in central Saudi Arabia, a 12 year-old married to an 80-year-old man.
The debate over the marriage of underage girls still rages in Saudi Arabia. Recently, the debate was renewed when a mother filed a complaint with officials to convey the cries of her daughter, "Help me, I don't want him." This rattled the Saudi judiciary system, which lacks written laws on the issue and relies on sharia, interpretations of the members of the Supreme Judicial Council and some of the court judges.
Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that has not stipulated the age of marriage for a boy or a girl, and there are no accurate statistics on the number of underage marriages.
Sultan bin Zahim, an attorney appointed by the government's Human Rights Commission to review the Onaiza case, told Al-Shorfa that "the mother of the 'Onaiza girl' withdrew the divorce petition." The reason, he said, is that "her ex-husband (the girl's father) has been haggling with her to drop the lawsuit in exchange for him dropping all the charges he had against her".
In this case the role of the commission will be "to verify the primary aim behind the marriage contract in order to ensure that such marriages, based on financial pressure or revenge between the spouses, do not take place in the future," according to Zahim. He added that "based on that, the marriage between the ‘Onaiza girl’ and the octogenarian is valid, and cannot be dissolved".
An underage girl "is not completely independent', Zahim said, "and the consent for her marriage is given by her guardian (the father). His consent should be in accordance with the girl's well-being, and not against it, as was the case with this child. It is clear that financial haggling was a major factor in the marriage in terms of relieving the guardian (the girl's father) of a debt, or it was an act of vengeance against the first wife (the girl's mother) by marrying off her daughter and thus getting rid of her."
Dr. Suhailah Zain Al Abideen, a member of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, said that "this type of marriage goes against the international treaties signed by Saudi Arabia, but the absence of written laws is preventing the application of these family laws which aim to protect children."
Al Abideen added that it is necessary to "review fathers’ guardianship of children older than nine years, especially after it has been confirmed that all child marriages were planned by the father while the mother’s role was non-existent."
Jaafar Al Shayib, a member of the National Society, said that the marriage of underage girls is a "form of trade". He told Al-Shorfa that "these types of marriages are a violation of human rights. Our role is to sensitize people and to strive towards enacting a law that would punish all the parties involved in this crime."
Sheikh Saleh Al Humaid, president of the Supreme Judicial Council, already announced at the first Convention for Judges that "the Judicial Code which will come out soon will include a complete organisational structure of the judicial system and will address important issues, among them the marriage of underage girls, which are handled by the judicial system."