Shareefa's father in front of their straw hut Image Credit: Al Sharq

Manama: The Saudi teenage bride who was married off to a 90-year-old man but changed her mind on their wedding night, said that she initially accepted the marriage to help dry the tears of her 12 brothers and sisters.

“I agreed to marry an old man because I felt really sorry about the painful living conditions of my family,” Shareefa Ali Shuwai said. “We lacked the essential elements to live in dignity. We had no real or secure home and we were deprived of school. We ate beef only on rare occasions or when charitable people offered it to us. My brothers and sisters had no toys or anything,” she said.

The family lived in a straw hut in the southwestern corner of the country, near the border with Yemen.

“Whenever there was rain, we really suffered and our father took us to our neighbour’s house so that we were protected from the downpour. Our father never got his identity papers because he did not complete the administrative procedures and we do not know what awaits us,” she told local Arabic daily Al Sharq a few days after her husband signed a document to formally divorce her.

Her mother, Mariam Hazazi, in her 40s, said that she was praying for a decent home, either from the government or a benefactor, and for official documents that would allow her sons and daughters to receive a formal education and healthcare.

Her father, Ali Shuwai, said that he laboured on a plot of land that belonged to Saudis who lived in another area and that he received part of the produce.

“We get some money and we store some of the wheat for the family’s needs throughout the year,” he said.

The family came under scrutiny following news that Shareefa, believed to be 15, was married off to a man reportedly six times her age.

The huge age gap prompted the Saudi Human Rights Commission to leap into action and formally end the highly controversial wedding.

“We wanted to protect the young woman from this unbalanced wedding and provide the legal assistance she might need,” the Commission said in a statement. “We also met the head of the local tribe and dignitaries and we eventually reached an agreement for the divorce that was signed by the parties involved.”

The agreement settled the issue and gave Shareefa her freedom.

An earlier decision based on local traditions in the rural area in Jizan in southwestern Saudi Arabia reportedly put an end to the marriage between Haider Bin Ali Masrahi, the 90-year-old man, and Shareefa after she refused the forced wedding.

The decision meant to conclude a bitter dispute between the man and his bride’s family that lasted several months.

However, the nonagenarian insisted on either getting his wife or dowry money back before agreeing to the divorce in a marriage that was never consummated.

The case started when the would-be groom proposed to the teenager and offered her parents, a Saudi father and Yemeni mother, a 45,000 riyal dowry (Dh44,074) and said that he would fund the celebrations.

The father accepted the offer and agreed to the marriage despite the huge age difference between the bride and the groom.

However, the marriage was never consummated after the bride locked herself in a room following the celebrations, and refused to allow her husband in.

The bride spent the night crying and in the early morning, the groom called her family to “reason” with her.

When her relatives arrived, she opened the door and they were shocked to find her in tears. They also found out that she had torn her wedding dress in distress, a local daily said.

The distraught family took the bride home and refused to compromise with the groom.

When he later visited them to take his wife home, the family refused, leading the man to ask for the dowry money.

The family said that they had spent it and that they did not have any money to give back, prompting him to take action against them.

Shareefa’s father attributed his decision to accept the peculiar marriage to his family’s “extremely dire living conditions.”

“Poverty had pushed me to marry Shareefa to a man who was much older than she was,” Ali said. “I was lured by the money because my family needed it. We live in a straw hut that does not protect us from the terrible cold or the sweltering heat. My family have been through extremely hard times and I do not even have identity papers that prove my civil status. I was financially unable to follow through the administrative procedures to receive my identity documents,” he said, quoted by local Arabic daily Al Sharq.

Her father said that his daughter was not 15 as reported by the media and that she was in her 20s.

The groom who insisted that he was in his mid-80s, said that Shareefa’s family readily accepted his proposal to marry her.

“Her father and I agreed on the marriage details, including the dowry money,” he said. “I paid 45,000 riyals while the other expenses amounted to 35,000 riyals,” he told the daily.

The marriage was however never consummated.

“When we got home on the wedding night, she rushed to a room and locked herself inside and refused to open the door until early morning when two of her uncles came to take her to her family’s home,” he said.

He said that he received back only 20,000 riyals and that he wanted to file a complaint to have the rest of the money in case Shareefa refused to go back to him.

“There is nothing wrong with me taking up a wife. I am still physically active and I am in great shape,” he said.

He attributed his decision to get married to the old age of his first wife.

“She is past her 80s now and it has been a long time since we lived as husband and wife. I have decided to take up a new wife,” he said.

Local daily Al Youm, quoting sources close to the case, said that the man’s marriage with Shareefa was not his first with an adolescent.

“Around 18 months ago, he married a Yemeni girl who was also 15 years old,” the sources said. “She stayed with him for about one month before fleeing and seeking help from a village dignitary.”

However, the elderly man told the daily that his Yemeni bride did not abscond from home and that he had divorced her.