Women in Saudi Arabia

Grand Mufti Pronounces End of Forced Marriages

Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, has come out against the practice of forcing women to marry against their will. He has said the practice is against the laws of Islam. Kateri Jochum reports

Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, has come out against the practice of forcing women to marry against their will. He has said the practice is against the laws of Islam and called for the imprisonment of violators. Kateri Jochum reports

photo: AP
Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdelasis El Scheich called for the imprisonment of men who marry women against their will

​​For years, Saudi Arabia has been in a state of alarm about the country's high divorce rate. In some places – like in the holy city of Mecca – up to 50 per cent of marriages don't make it past the first three years.

Saudi sociologist Abdullah El Fausan prophesies that roughly 40 per cent of the nation's women could be single by the end of this decade, most as divorcees.

One of the main reasons for this high divorce rate according to El Fausan is the practice of forced marriage.

The Grand Mufti speaks out in favour of women

Marriages in Saudi Arabia are often arranged by the families of the young people involved. But Grand Mufti Abdelasis El Scheich wants to put an end to that. From now on, he says, women should not be married against their will.

Liberal women, like journalist Hanan El Zaini, welcomed the Grand Mufti's Fatwa, which threatens penalties for those who force their daughters into marriage.

"There are modern and traditional reasons for forced marriages, like tribal or religious traditions," El Zaini says. "But today economic factors play a role as well when a father forces his daughter into marriage or keeps her from marrying – like being able to keep her money or her earnings."

Forcing women into marriage is an act against Islamic law, Grand Mufti Abdelasis El Scheich says. Those who do it anyway should be sent to jail, he says, until they change their opinion.

There is no lack of examples for failed marriages in Saudi Arabia, says Dr. Tawal al-Tuwriqi, a doctor in Riad.

"A 23-year-old woman was brought into the clinic after she had overdosed on different medications," al-Tuwriqi tells us.

"We found out that she had been forced into marriage with her cousin. He was not much older than her, but they were very different when it came to mindset, upbringing, income and lifestyle. The problems began just a few months after they were married."

Women and liberals in the country are happy about the Grand Mufti's religious instructions. But although the man has the status of a minister in Saudi Arabia, he has no direct power over the law.

Young women often experience great difficulties when they openly go against the will of their families. Single women have a hard time finding their place in the ultra-conservative society.

Divorced women are seen as "used"

Only about 5 per cent of all Saudi women have a permanent job, which helps them be financially independent of their husbands and families.

Forced marriages are only one reason for the high divorce rate in the kingdom.

Sociologist El Fausan also names the desire of many men for polygamous relationships and the growing self-confidence of many educated women in the country – while the men continue to hold on to outdated traditions.

Most of the divorced women in Saudi Arabia remain single for the rest of their lives – since they are viewed as "used".

They are often dependent on their families for financial support and have little or no job prospects. Women older than 25 have difficulties finding husbands because they are considered too old.

And the majority of women with college education remain single as well. They obviously do not represent the feminine ideal for Saudi men.

Kateri Jochum

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005

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