10/24/2007 07:06 PM | By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief

Manama: The Islamic Scholars Council yesterday rejected a decision by the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry, which set 15 as the minimum marriage age for girls.

"This decision means that the ministry is claiming the same prerogatives as tghe Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) because imposing marriage conditions or criteria is the privilege of the prophet. No minister or human being for that matter can alter the existing conditions or introduce new ones," the council said in a press statement.

The ministry on Sunday for the first time in Bahrain's history fixed the marriage age for both Sunnis and Shiites: 15 for women and 18 for men, stressing that changes could only be made by a specialised court. "We have set the minimum age to ensure there is no exploitation of young girls," the ministry said.

But the council, made up of the country's most prominent Shiite figures, is worried that the government is trying to impose a family law that would govern marriage, divorce and custody relations.

The council has for the last two years passionately rejected campaigns by the government, the Supreme Council for Women and women's rights activists to issue a family law, arguing that legislators would not be able to uphold Islamic precepts.

"For the council, the minimum marriage age is not really an issue because very few girls, if any, get married when they are 15 or less. Most girls at least finish their high school education and that is usually at 18," Khalid Radhi, an activist with strong ties with the council, told Gulf News.

However, the ministry's decision was welcomed by women's rights activists. They said the minimum age should have been set at 18 for women.

"In the absence of a family law and as we cannot know how many families marry off their young daughters to Bahraini, Gulf or Arab men, we believe that the ministry's decision is a much-needed protection for women. We look forward to more such rules to ensure that the highest number of women live with dignity," Fareeda Ghuloom, a women's rights activist, said.