Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Justice Walid Al-Samaari proposed that womenmust provide verbal consent for their marriage to be valid. Marriage officials must “listen personally to women’s consent to matrimony before they write down marriage contracts.”
It is not known whether this legislative amendment has passed. Still, the proposal itself is revolutionary news in a place notorious for forcing women to cover from head to toe in public, not allowing them to drive and requiring them to have a male guardian from whom consent is required for almost any facet of life.
But what is consent in a country with no minimum marriage age? Can a child give informed consent?
What do the words “I do” mean when spoken by a woman afraid of being jailed if she does not marry her rapist?
Even if Al-Samaari’s proposed amendment is legislated, it won’t be enough. Saudi officials must enforce a healthy minimum marriage age. They must decriminalize rape victimhood. Only when such laws are enacted will laws requiring women’s verbal consent to marry have any affect.
But Al-Samaari’s proposal is worth something: It indicates that Saudi officials are starting to cave in to international and domestic pressure when it comes to women’s rights.
For years, members of the international community have fought to improve marital conditions for Saudi women, but to no avail. In 2011, Saudi political analyst Ali al-Ahmed contacted United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) director Ann Veneman, asking her to speak out about child marriage in Saudi Arabia.
“Instead, UNICEF lauded Saudi efforts to protect child rights and even honored Prince Naif, whose interior ministry is responsible for overseeing child marriages.” Other figures responded similarly to al-Ahmed’s request. Former U.S. Senator and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel even said, “We cannot decide for other countries what is appropriate or not,” writes Ali al-Ahmed in The Guardian.
But now, it seems, women’s rights are advancing in Saudi Arabia inch by inch. The 2015 municipal election was the first in which women could vote and the first in which women could run for office as local councilors. The increasing participation of women in politics and society has the potential to create better marriage laws.
Al-Samaari’s proposed marriage amendment indicates a growing awareness among Saudi officials that women must be free to make their own choices.