When I condemned President Barack Obama's deep bow to Saudi King Abdullah, I heard from many readers about President George W. Bush's hand-holding with the same personage. "What's the difference?" demanded one reader.
Well, hand-holding (while not exactly a welcome sight between the president of the United States and any ruler of a repressive state) is at least a gesture between equals. Bowing, on the other hand, suggests obeisance. It was a peculiar thing for the president to do. One understands that President Obama is all about respecting other cultures. He wants to listen. He wants to cooperate. He wants to convey his regrets for all of the mistakes America made before it had the wisdom to elect him. Fine.
But there are many societies on this earth -- and Saudi Arabia is one of them -- that have far more to learn from us than we from them. Consider some recent news from the kingdom.
There is a debate going on in the Saudi press about the practice of marrying off young girls to men who are decades older. In March, a Saudi judge declined to annul the marriage of 8-year-old girl who was married to a 47-year-old man. The child's mother had petitioned the court for redress, as she opposed the marriage. The girl's father, the wife alleged, had sold the third-grader to a close friend in payment of a debt. But the judge ruled that the mother had no standing since she, as a woman who lives separately from the father, was not the child's legal guardian under Saudi law. The marriage was valid, the judge ruled, though he added a request that the husband refrain from consummating the marriage until the girl reaches puberty.
Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch told CNN that he hears of cases like this every few months -- not because the practice is new but because Saudis are just beginning to feel able to protest it. MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, reports that in August 2008, a Saudi newspaper in the Uneizah district reported that another judge refused to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old to a man of 58. The judge asked the husband to divorce the child and return the dowry, but the husband declined, saying he had done nothing wrong.