By Najah Al-Otaibi
A Saudi student uses her phone at the exhibition to guide job seekers at Women's Career Fair in Riyadh, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser.

Some of my most striking memories as a teenager at school in Dammam are of conversations with teachers at the start of a term. Sitting at our desks in grade 9, we would talk excitedly about what we had done during the holidays, before the discussion turned to the empty chairs that only a few weeks earlier had been occupied by my 15-year-old classmates.

The reason for the abrupt end to their education was simple: marriage. And often to a cousin in his twenties. It happened so frequently that these conversations became part of the rhythm of school life. Those who married soon had children and led lives similar to our mothers’. This was a source of fascination for the rest of us who, although forbidden to leave home without wearing an abaya or to ride a bicycle, could look forward to university or even an opportunity to study in Europe or the United States.

Saudi women’s rights are in the international spotlight once again thanks to the blitzkrieg social media campaign that helped Rahaf al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, win asylum in Canada after barring herself in a Bangkok hotel airport. Although Rahaf’s reason for fleeing is that she feared her family might kill her for renouncing Islam, Thai authorities reported that she was trying to escape a forced marriage.

Rahaf's story puts the guardianship law—which prohibits Saudi women from traveling without a male relative’s permission and gives them little say over whom and when they will marry—under the microscope. It also highlights a growing schism evident in innumerable Saudi families between the younger, reform-minded generations and their traditionalist parents.

More than 20 years after I sat in that classroom in Dammam, there is clear evidence that the monarchy has begun to chip away at the guardianship system. In 2017, King Salman issued a decree giving Saudi women access to government and health services without a guardian’s permission. Last year, the Crown ended the ban on women’s driving and passed a law imposing strict penalties for harassment.

Now, the Shura Council has approved a draft law banning marriage for any girl under the age of 16 (there were previously no age restrictions) and put tough conditions on approving unions for those between 16 and 18 (restrictions formerly applied only to those younger than 16). This new law ends the religious establishment’s monopolization of family law. Whereas in the past clerics wrote marriage contracts, now they can only authorize marriages approved by the Court of Civil Affairs.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but the best available statistics show that 6,200 Saudi girls under the age of 18 were married between 2007 and 2016, the majority from the kingdom’s southern province of Jazan. By comparison, 77 percent of Nigerian girls and 57 percent of Indian girls marry before age 18. In the United States, over 186,000 girls under the age of 18 married between 2000 and 2015.

The marriage of minors in Saudi Arabia has been a topic of public debate since 2010, when the Saudi Human Rights Commission dissolved the marriage of a 12-year-old girl from al-Qassim Province to her 80-year-old cousin. But with rare exceptions, the authorities only hinted at change until now. This is due in part to the wide divisions between Saudi liberals and traditionalists.

Media, civic organizations, educated youth, and intellectuals argue that it is logically inconsistent to consider girls under the age of 18 fit for marriage but unfit to travel or work without the consent of a male guardian. Reformers are also strongly critical of families who agree to marry their daughters for money. Under Islamic law, women are to be given a dowry by their husbands, but many families claim these monies. In the case of the girl from Qassim, her family netted $23,000.

Conversely, the traditionalist majority, led by the Council of Senior Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, argue that there is no religious basis for a minimum marriage age. Just five years ago, the kingdom’s senior-most religious figure, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, called the marriage of minors under the age of 15 “permissible.” Conservatives also argue that restrictions on marriage would jeopardize “girls’ honor” (i.e., virginity), which is strongly linked with a girl’s family’s standing in the community.

The Saudi Arabia that Rahaf left is a very different country from the one I grew up in. Her generation does not face the religious police harassing them in malls for not wearing their veils properly. They are not forbidden from leaving university—as my sisters and I were—until their drivers or guardians pick them up.

I was lucky. Back then, my father understood that my sisters and I wanted to travel and study abroad before settling down. Many Saudi women were not as fortunate.

But even if the law has changed, Rahaf’s case reminds us that traditionalist fathers who grew up in a country where the state vouchsafed religious values and familial honor are clashing with headstrong “disobedient daughters” who have come of age during a period of unprecedented change. For these patriarchs, women’s rights and expectations are progressing at a pace beyond what they can presently endure.