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双语世界:八岁新娘 Child Brides

来源:天星 更新日期:2009-04-03 点击:

How can a child be signed away in marriage to man 50 years her senior, without her knowledge and against the wishes of her mother?

The plight of an 8-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia is attracting the attention of world media, including CNN, and local media such as the Arab News and the Saudi Gazette. A contract for her marriage has been drawn up by her father and his 58-year-old friend, against the wishes of her mother and without the 4th-grader's knowledge.

The father defends the action, citing a promise from the new husband that the marriage will not be consummated until the girl reaches the age of 18. The girl continues to live with her mother at this time.

The mother petitioned a local court to annul the marriage, but was denied on the technical ground that she is not the "legal guardian" of the child. Under Saudi law, which many local human and women's rights groups are trying to change, a female child or adult is always under the "legal guardianship" of a male relative. So although the mother has physical custody of the child, she cannot legally represent the child in court. And ironically, since the child is still a minor, she cannot petition the court herself until she reaches puberty!

In my opinion, it's time for the higher courts to step in and ban the practice of arranged child marriage altogether, immediately. Changes are in the works -- the country's Shoura Council (governing body) is currently considering legislation to set a minimum marriage age of 14 or 18, and perhaps banning marriages with significant age differences between husband and wife. Officials of the country's National Human Rights Association have insisted that Saudi Arabia must adhere to signed international human rights agreements which define a "child" as anyone under the age of 18. The government requires premarital health testing, and the mother's lawyer has expressed outrage that this marriage was not red-flagged at that point. But is the pace of bureaucracy too slow to help this particular child?

The promise of girls in marriage to older men was common in Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) Arabia, and has tribal and cultural roots. Such ignorance has no place in Islam, and many Muslim scholars and judges have spoken out against such practices. Their legal reasoning is that:

* in Islamic law, in order for a marriage to be valid, the female must approve of the contract.

* a minor child is considered unable to understand and enter into any type of legal contract.

* a contract cannot be entered into on behalf of another person, unless that person understands and consents to it.

* a girl's silence on the issue cannot be taken as tacit approval, since the child is unable to understand the issue and is often not even told.

* such marriages often result in health problems, psychological trauma, and divorce.

There is reason for hope. The Saudi National Human Rights Association has successfully intervened on behalf of other girls. Public outrage, within Saudi Arabia and worldwide, is strong and growing. Government officials have already begun the process of setting new laws. The mother's lawyer has vowed to file an appeal next week. And hopefully, one young girl will avoid having her fate chosen for her by someone who obviously doesn't have her best interests in mind.