There has been a small story that has gotten a lot of criticism in the news lately, about a nine year old girl in Saudi Arabia whose father “married” her to his friend.

The news stories are unclear if he did this to get money, or if he just wanted to make sure the girl had a home, but the mother became upset and sued, eventually winning in the Saudi court system after her third try, with the help of human rights organizations.

From ChinaView:

    “This is a good step and I think the man did it because he was in a lot of pressure from everyone,” Wajeha Al-Huaider, founder of the Group for Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, told Reuters.

    Al-Huaider, who campaigned for the child, said she hoped the pressure generated by the case would eventually lead to a law banning child marriages.

One hopes that the case will move Saudi feminism into the twentieth century.

But the enraged Islamophobia that is lurking behind the story (just read the comments HERE ) ignores that the problem is not that the original custom wasn’t good, but that modern economics make arranged marriages and child marriage untenable and unnecessary.

Indeed, the problem is not Islam, but poverty. In a lot of countries, small farmers or pastoral people lived on the edge of starvation, where any change threatened their ability to survive. In such countries, parents are the ones to arrange marriages so that their daughters can best survive. Some of these marriages are arranged when the girl is quite young, perhaps because the father is worried he will die before the girl comes of age, and wants to make sure she will not be abandoned if he dies,  but of course, the marriages are not consummated until after puberty.

Yes, there are abuses, and yes, sometimes fathers force their daughters to marry so that they can get a good dowry for them, but the problem is greed and selfishness, not the law itself.

The easiest way to explain the reasons behind such laws is to point to the story/movie Fiddler on the Roof

The father chose a rich elderly butcher for his eldest daughter, because he rationalizes that the man is kind, loves his daughter, and his daughter will never lack food to eat.

Food to eat. We westerners take it for granted, but many immigrants still remember times when there was not enough to eat, because of famine, war, or because they were refugees.

As my husband once told me: You are never poor unless you don’t have enough rice to eat.

So, imagine that you are a father, and love your daughters. You want to chose the spouse who they think will care for their child the best. In Africa, this often means outside your clan, but in the Middle East, this often means inside your clan, with relatives or friends you know the best. In Asia, this might also mean checking horoscopes to see if the two are compatible.

Most fathers take into consideration the desires of the girl, but not always. Sometimes money is exchanged to seal the deal.

But this makes women nothing but chattel, right?

Well, actually a girl, once she has reached puberty,can refuse such an arranged marriage under Saudi law. Most are brought up to obey their father or spouse, so will not, but legally they can refuse the marriage.

Well, what is the alternative? Remember: a pregnant mother cannot work, and she and her child are an extra burden on the family that might not have enough food for everyone.

One ancient alternative is, of course, prostitution.

In some Asian and European countries, working as a maid or helper was a short term alternative, so women could earn their dowry. But some poorer tribal societies often didn’t want their daughters to do this, for fear of sexual exploitation.

But of course, things change.

Again, the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” shows a time of change: The girl wishes another man, and the father, who loves his daughter, agrees.

But the second daughter essentially arranges her own marriage, and the father dislikes this but does not or cannot stop her.

And indeed, one of the untold stories of the modern world is that modern economics allow women to reject arranged marriages, including marriages arranged when the girl is still a child.

There are health and maturity problems in teenagers who marry or have children, and so the Saudis may change their law:

The justice minister said the ban, if approved, would help solve one of the most continuous problems facing Saudi society.

“A girl below 18 is often not fit to take the family responsibility especially if she quickly gives birth (after marriage),” Eissa said.

For this reason, the majority of child marriages end in divorce, he noted.

The UN is pressuring them to change the law to 18; yet too many of my friends married at age 16 or 17 to think this is the answer.

So the Saudis, whose grandparents remember poverty, will probably quietly change their customs and laws, not because the laws in the past were bad, but because educated girls expect a larger say in their own marriages.

The patriarchal control of women was probably necessary in the past, but now that people have an easier life and are able to afford to educate both girls and boys, and now that there are other alternatives in the workplace for women, feminism can start pointing out the inequalities spawned by the patriarchal society need to be corrected.

However, given the huge percentage of unwed mothers, children being raised in poverty without fathers,  and abortions in the west, one doubts that the Saudis will eagerly embrace the sexual revolution of the west either.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes on medical matters at Hey Doc Xanga Blog.

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