When I condemned President Barack Obama's deep bow to Saudi King
Abdullah, I heard from many readers about President George W. Bush's
hand-holding with the same personage. "What's the difference?" demanded
Well, hand-holding (while not exactly a welcome sight between the
president of the United States and any ruler of a repressive state) is
at least a gesture between equals. Bowing, on the other hand, suggests
obeisance. It was a peculiar thing for the president to do. One
understands that President Obama is all about respecting other cultures.
He wants to listen. He wants to cooperate. He wants to convey his
regrets for all of the mistakes America made before it had the wisdom to
elect him. Fine.
But there are many societies on this earth and Saudi Arabia is one of
them that have far more to learn from us than we from them. Consider
some recent news from the kingdom.
There is a debate going on in the Saudi press about the practice of
marrying off young girls to men who are decades older. In March, a Saudi
judge declined to annul the marriage of 8-year-old girl who was married
to a 47-year-old man. The child's mother had petitioned the court for
redress, as she opposed the marriage. The girl's father, the wife
alleged, had sold the third-grader to a close friend in payment of a
debt. But the judge ruled that the mother had no standing since she, as
a woman who lives separately from the father, was not the child's legal
guardian under Saudi law. The marriage was valid, the judge ruled,
though he added a request that the husband refrain from consummating the
marriage until the girl reaches puberty.
Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch told CNN that he hears of cases
like this every few months not because the practice is new but
because Saudis are just beginning to feel able to protest it. MEMRI, the
Middle East Media Research Institute, reports that in August 2008, a
Saudi newspaper in the Uneizah district reported that another judge
refused to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old to a man of 58. The judge
asked the husband to divorce the child and return the dowry, but the
husband declined, saying he had done nothing wrong.
According the U.S. Agency for International Development, "women who bear
children at a young age may face serious health consequences. Young
mothers experience higher rates of maternal mortality and higher risk of
obstructed labor and pregnancy-induced hypertension because their bodies
are unprepared for childbirth. … Girls between 10 and 14 are five
times more likely than women ages 20 to 24 to die in pregnancy and
childbirth … Girls ages 15 to 19 are twice as likely as older women to
die from pregnancy and childbirth. …" Even the Saudi Health Ministry
has agreed that child marriages are "one of the primary causes for the
emergence of physical and psychological problems." Among the physical
problems the ministry cited were "menstrual problems, infertility, and
vaginal tearing." Among the psychological costs were "anxiety and
marital problems" resulting from the "early withdrawal of maternal love"
and the "sudden termination of childhood."
Saudi Arabia is in many respects a medieval society. But enlightenment
is trickling in. The very fact that the nation now boasts a Saudi
Society for the Defense of Women's Rights is notable. The group recently
released a video titled "I am a Child, Not a Woman" and is campaigning
to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 for girls and 18 for boys.
Saudi newspaper columnists have been vehement. Writing in the daily
Al-Jazirah, Jasser 'Abd Al-'Aziz called out the imams who permit the
practice: "Everyone needs to … fight … this strange phenomenon …
beginning with the mosque imams who must address this perversion. It is
paramount that they address it in their Friday sermons which are
supposed to deal with problems in the religious (and general) conduct of
(Muslim) society … (When) a father (marries off his underage
daughter), doesn't he realize that he is turning her into merchandise to
be bought and sold, denying her humanity, and treating her like a lowly
Actually, it was only in 1962 that the Saudis outlawed slavery. But they
did outlaw it because it made them feel so out of step with the rest of
the world. Saudi Arabia is not the only nation in the world to oppress
women, or even to practice child marriage just the wealthiest.
The liberal belief that America has so much to apologize for and so
little to teach was not in evidence when the foreign policy question was
apartheid in South Africa which presents the question: Why not the
same urgency for child brides?