The latest clash in the struggle between Saudi Arabia's religious hardliners and reformists erupted this week when a court refused for the second time to annul a widely publicized marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a man of 60.
The case has been brought by the girl’s mother, who accused the child’s father of selling her to pay off his debts.
Saudi Justice Minister Mohammad Issa went on to tell the Saudi Daily Al Watan
that the ministry of justice was seeking to “regulate” marriages of young girls but gave no indication the practice would be stopped.
The story was later picked up by the BBC and other Western media outlets, prompting rare public criticism by the United States, which called the case a "clear and unacceptable violation of human rights.”
The backlash was not limited to the Western press, however. Commentators on Al Watan’s website also expressed their outrage over Issa's comments.
“Why regulation?” wrote Tariq Nasser. “Why isn’t the headline: marriage to minors outlawed?”
The issue of child brides has been raised more frequently in the past few years by a number of religious, political and activist organizations, including the Saudi Human Rights Commission, which worked with the ministry of health to prepare a report on the subject that was released in February.
The commission has "stated more than once that such marriages violate international agreements concerning children,” HRC spokesman Zuhair Al-Harithy told Arab News
in January, referring to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.
Harithy’s remarks came in response to a speech made early this year by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Asheikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, in which he defended the practice of marrying girls over “10 or 12.”
Other clerics have come out against marriage to young girls.
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Saudi women attend a festival in Riyadh. Credit: Hassan Ammar / AFP / Getty Images