A stunning debate on television in the Middle East featured a 10-year-old Yemeni "bride" who was ordered by her parents into a contract marriage and an Islamic cleric who argued that such arrangements are ordinary.
The cleric said he would "marry her (off) for sure" if she has "reached puberty."
The program aired Sept. 16 on the Lebanese Al-Jadid/New TV channel, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors, interprets and analyzes the region's media.
The girl, Nada al-Ahdal, now 11, actually didn't marry the 26-year-old man, because she ran away to her uncle, who didn't share the girl's parents' views about marriage.
She said children in her position need help.
"My final words are directed toward the Arab world," she told the Lebanese outlet. "I hope that all the girls will do what I did, but there is nobody there to help them. I hope that an organization will be set up, and then 90 percent of the girls will flee (forced marriage]. That will happen if there is an organization to protect children, not act against them. It should protect them from everything, not just marriage."
In the interview, Nada al-Ahdal explained she ran away from the arranged marriage because she wanted to study.
The interviewer asked: "When they told you they wanted to marry you off, what did you know about marriage?"
She replied: "They told me it was a game, but it isn't. It turns you into a servant and places a burden that is greater than you can bear on your shoulders."
She said her parents told her: "You're going to get married. You'll get a new dress."
She said she learned the suitor paid her parents $2,000 for her.
The uncle who helped her, Abd Al-Salem, said Nada could have ended up like her sisters, ages 12 and 14, who both are to be married soon.
The cleric, Sheik Abu Yahya, however, said a contractual marriage is perfectly acceptable.
"From the moment the baby girl is born, takes her first breaths, and is given a name, her guardian, who is her father only – and there is consensus about this in the Muslim world – is allowed to marry her off," he said. "This is an accepted custom, and perhaps even my grandparents and your grandparents married this way."
He said the marriage is not consummated until the girl is prepared, anywhere from age 9 to 25.
The interviewer questioned him, "If you had a girl who reached puberty at nine years of age –"
Yahya interrupted: "I would marry her for sure. ... If I had a daughter who reached puberty, I would marry her off. People must understand that there is a distinction between contractual marriage, which is permitted by Islamic law, and consummated marriage."
Yahya claimed that the Vatican permits marriage at 12, Spain at age 13, Japan at age 13 and America at age 14.
The interviewer questioned the accuracy of Yahya's information.