Monday, October 19, 2009

Woman Divorces over Gitmo Nickname

According to Al Arabiya, a Saudi woman has filed for divorce after discovering her husband stored her name in his cell phone as "Guantanamo." The husband claimed he stored the name to protect her identity, in case prying eyes might learn her number when she called.

Such nicknaming is apparently common practice for Saudi husbands, but most men choose less offensive names for their wives. However, one man interviewed, Khaled Omar, said he stored his wife as "salary" because "she has no mercy when it comes to spending."

So what do we learn from this?

For one, men do stupid things no matter where they're from. And then they get caught. Two, women don't like it when they're compared to an infamous prison that denies basic due process to some of the world's most dangerous terrorists. But, if you trust Mr. Omar, they do like shopping (I would add that most Gulf Arabs love shopping, not just the women).

But on a more serious point, the article notes the woman, who is currently 30 years old, has been married for 17 years. In other words, she was married at the age of 13. Yet for Al Arabiya, this uncomfortable fact is not worth mentioning.

Child marriage is a persistent problem in Saudi Arabia, as well as some other countries in the region. Just last month, a 12 year old Yemeni girl died during childbirth. In Saudi Arabia specifically, several high profile cases of child marriage have sparked debate within the Kingdom. In one case earlier this year, a judge annulled a marriage between an 8 year old girl and a 50 year old man. A strengthening women's movement and increasingly assertive press have begun to highlight such egregious cases.

Now, the Saudi government is considering setting a minimum age for marriage at 18 years, but has faced opposition from powerful, conservative religious leaders. Importantly, Saudi Arabia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Child, a legally binding international treaty protecting the rights of minors. Yet, the country has been slow in meeting the convention's provisions.

While Islam is often used to justify child marriage by conservatives, it is not inherently an Islamic practice. There is currently an intense, internal debate about when marriage should be considered appropriate. For example, take a look at this article about child marriages in Malawi and the religious argument it sparks, with both sides citing religious sources.

One of the main points of contention is the Prophet Mohammed's marriage to one of his wives, Aisha, who was likely only nine years old when the marriage was consummated. Many Muslims argue that morality evolves with history. Therefore, what was acceptable in 7th century Arabia may no longer be acceptable in the 21st century. But some conservative Muslims, who believe the Prophet's life set an eternal exemplar of righteousness, argue that Islamic morality was perfected in the 7th century and will never change. Thus if Mohammed married a child, it is moral to do so now.

The debate over polygamy follows a similar structure. Over the course of his lifetime, Mohammed married eleven women. However, the Qur'an also clearly states that a man should never have more than four wives at one time and can only marry additional wives if he can manage to treat them all equally and fairly. Importantly, many men in the Old Testament also had multiple wives, but years ago Judaism and Christianity eliminated polygamy as modern morality evolved. Now, Islam is currently undergoing a similar process, but the answer is far from settled.

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