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.
According the U.S. Agency for International Development, "women who bear children at a young age may face serious health consequences. Young mothers experience higher rates of maternal mortality and higher risk of obstructed labor and pregnancy-induced hypertension because their bodies are unprepared for childbirth. ... Girls between 10 and 14 are five times more likely than women ages 20 to 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth ... Girls ages 15 to 19 are twice as likely as older women to die from pregnancy and childbirth. ..." Even the Saudi Health Ministry has agreed that child marriages are "one of the primary causes for the emergence of physical and psychological problems." Among the physical problems the ministry cited were "menstrual problems, infertility, and vaginal tearing." Among the psychological costs were "anxiety and marital problems" resulting from the "early withdrawal of maternal love" and the "sudden termination of childhood."
Saudi Arabia is in many respects a medieval society. But enlightenment is trickling in. The very fact that the nation now boasts a Saudi Society for the Defense of Women's Rights is notable. The group recently released a video titled "I am a Child, Not a Woman" and is campaigning to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 for girls and 18 for boys. Saudi newspaper columnists have been vehement. Writing in the daily Al-Jazirah, Jasser 'Abd Al-'Aziz called out the imams who permit the practice: "Everyone needs to ... fight ... this strange phenomenon ... beginning with the mosque imams who must address this perversion. It is paramount that they address it in their Friday sermons which are supposed to deal with problems in the religious (and general) conduct of (Muslim) society ... (When) a father (marries off his underage daughter), doesn't he realize that he is turning her into merchandise to be bought and sold, denying her humanity, and treating her like a lowly slave?"
Actually, it was only in 1962 that the Saudis outlawed slavery. But they did outlaw it because it made them feel so out of step with the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia is not the only nation in the world to oppress women, or even to practice child marriage -- just the wealthiest.
The liberal belief that America has so much to apologize for and so little to teach was not in evidence when the foreign policy question was apartheid in South Africa -- which presents the question: Why not the same urgency for child brides?