Ramadan TV specials are not only good for prime time Arab viewing, but also for introspection, touching on some of the controversial issues of Arab and Islamic countries. This year, a prominent theme is the scandalous issue of marriage of men to young women, sometimes very young.
The Saudi MBC network created a drama series especially for Ramadan, called The Minors, which tells viewers the story of a 9-year-old bride. Reactions in the Islamic world to the series have been stormy.
The marriage of minors to older men is widespread in Arab and Muslim countries. Morocco, for example, reported that in recent years there has been a significant increase in the rate of underaged girls marrying. Data released by Iraq’s Ministry of Planning and Development several days ago showed that the country leads the world with underage marriages, at 11%.
In Saudi Arabia, it was reported in January of this year that a 90-year-old man had married a 15-year-old girl, after paying 65,000 Riyals to her family. The man later sued the girl's family because she locked herself in a room right after the wedding and stayed there for two days.
Now the conservative kingdom is pushing a bill that would set the minimum age for marriage at 16, but it will be possible to request of the court to allow marriages at an earlier age.
The plot of the Saudi Arabian series that is now causing controversy in the Arab world takes place in Egypt, far from Cairo, in the periphery. It deals with the physical and psychological damage caused to girls – who are stll children – as a result of their marriages to older men.
The series not only criticizes the early age at which these girls are taken as wives, but also the fact that the men are often paid to take these girls as their wives, taking advantage of the poverty of the young brides' families.
In the opening scene of the series aired last week, a nine-year-old girl, Sabah Shama, is seen playing with her friends. Suddenly viewers are shown signs that little Sabah is ‘coming of age,’ meaning she is now marriageable.
When this becomes known, a rich old man named Kahal, who is over 70-years-old and already married to two girls aged 11, requests his sister that she arrange a wedding to Sabah, whom he will take as his third wife. The girl's family welcomes the proposal of the old man, and gives the man gold and silver, so that he will wed their child, further pushing the already poor family into poverty.
If this is not enough to shock viewers, the brother of the little girl asks Kahal to prove to the village that his sister is a respectable woman. Thus, a forged wedding document is created, stating the child's age to be 16. In this way, the creators of the series clearly also touch on the corrupt industry surrounding the issue of underage weddings. An entire village helps the old man, and continues to provide him with little girls.
In one of the difficult scenes in the series, the nine-year-old is seen on her wedding night, forced to give herself to the old man. Afterwards, she suffers a severe hemorrhage and dies. The Al-Arabiya network wrote about this scene that the girl "panicked as she followed the rituals of being given over to her groom. Together with her thousands of questions, she also remembers the fairy tale stories she was sold.”
When the old man learns his young wife is dead, he is unmoved. He returns to his sister and asks her to find him a new bride.
The first episodes of the series provoked a surge of online responses throughout the Arab world. Some viewers were shocked by the phenomenon itself, while others were terrified by a series bringing the issue so vividly into their living rooms.
One of the web surfers wrote on Facebook, "This is the greatest sin of the society in which we live, a society which is not cultural. We live on backward customs and backward traditions." Another surfer was shocked by the decision to display such severe images on screen. "This series has scenes that exceed the limits of human beings."
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