June Issue 2019

By | Viewpoint | Published 6 months ago

It will be a long time before I can erase from memory pictures of a girl child with tears running down her face, bedecked in red, standing beside a leering man at least four times her age. Reports on social media suggest that her parents had her “married” to the man in lieu of money and by the time the media intervened, she had already been raped several times. Although not rare in other countries, this story is very common in the Muslim world.   

Bed of thorns: A child married off to an old man after paying walwar (bride price) – a common practice in Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Just a few days earlier, a bill calling to raise the age of marriage to 18 had led to considerable uproar in the National Assembly, both from the treasury and the opposition benches. Religious parties spoke with one voice against the bill, declaring it to be “non-Shariah compliant.” Subsequently, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) gave a highly ambiguous opinion, suggesting that instead of passing such a bill, the government should engage in a mass awareness campaign. It may come as a surprise to many, but marriage of children is not a religious issue at all. It is, instead, a political, social and economic issue which must be addressed according to the changing norms of society. It is beyond logic and common sense to comprehend the reason for keeping the age of marriage below 18. If one cannot acquire a National Identity Card or vote or enter any contract (legal or social) or be allowed to drive until one is an adult, should one be coerced into taking such a major and responsible step as getting married?

To lend credence to their argument in favour of child marriages, Muslim men are wont to argue that they are following in the footsteps of the Prophet (sws), since he had married Ayesha (rta) presumably when she was six, and consummated the marriage when she was nine (this information is based on an unauthentic Hadith). When making this claim, perhaps they forget that they are supporting the propaganda of Islamophobes, dating back to the Crusades, when in contrast to the celibate Christ, the Prophet (sws) was depicted as a lustful (God forbid) man.

Portrait of grief: Soomar Soomro, 40, married 10-year-old Malookan after paying her father a hefty sum of Rs. 250,000. The police recovered her in a raid in Naparkot, Shikarpur.

There are logical arguments that seem to suggest that Ayesha was much older when she married the Prophet (sws). In one Hadith, Ayesha (rta) recalls being a young girl when Surah Qamar was revealed in 613 AD, nine years before her wedding. Besides, she was already engaged to another man before she married the Prophet (sws), which could not have been possible had she been six. She was a vivacious, highly intelligent and gifted woman, a tremendous support to the Prophet (sws) and one of the greatest scholars of Islam. The Prophet (sws) and she had a tender, loving and respectful relationship that would not have been possible had her soul been abused (just as a child’s is). Her sister, Asma, was 10 years older than Ayesha (rta), and had died when she was 100, 72 years after her wedding. This places Ayesha’s age at 18.

At that time, no one kept birth registers and few knew their exact ages. Maturity often came with puberty, and that was when social and economic circumstances demanded that a marriage take place. Adulthood meant puberty, but it also meant wisdom. If the Quran is read with deliberation, there are several verses which identify the need for both puberty and maturity, before the state of marriage. “Test the orphans until they reach marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them maturity release their property to them” (4:6). Islam also ordains men to make a payment of gifts or properties (mehr) to wives upon marriage. Thus, girls must be able to manage their wealth before they marry.

In arguing for early marriages, especially for virgins, Muslim men tend to forget conveniently that the Quran and the Prophet (sws) call for free consent of both partners. For widows, the Quran says: “Then there is no blame upon you for what they do with themselves in an acceptable way” (2:240). It also says: “O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion”(4:19).

The Prophet (sws) has said: “The virgin should not be given in marriage until her permission has been sought” (Sahih Bukhari, 1419). Is it possible for a child to seriously consider the pros and cons of her potential spouse and give or refuse her consent?

Yet another argument that is put forward is that decisions regarding the marriage of women are to be made by their wali (guardian). Incidentally, the Quran does not mention any such requirement of a wali for a woman’s marriage. It was a juristic concept (fiqh) which came into existence during the first century after Islam and was initially intended to offer moral support to women. It later transformed into an authoritarian male guardianship. However, none of the four schools of thought – Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafa’i or Maliki – have been able to agree upon the exact role of the wali. The former two agree that the wali’s consent is not necessary for a woman to marry. The great Islamic scholar, Ibne Rushd (Averroes, b:1126), said that had a guardian been necessary to exercise control over the marriage of a woman, the Quran would have said so, or the Prophet (sws) would have practised this. There are many examples from Madinah, where women contracted marriages of their own accord and did not require anyone’s permission.

Other arguments in favour of early marriage include the possibility of adolescents engaging in undesirable activities; men casting lustful eyes on unmarried girls and the general belief among parents that girls are a burden, to be cast off and placed on the husband’s shoulders as soon as possible. All of these are social ills and need to be addressed through education. If incentives are provided to parents to let daughters continue their education and concentrate on equipping them with life skills, rather than opting for the lifelong servitude of early marriages, many social and economic issues could be addressed.

Even if, for the sake of argument, one accepted that the Shariah needs to be brought into this discussion, we must realise that Islam wants laws to be made within the overall guiding principles laid down in the Quran and, as a secondary source, authentic Hadith, and must follow the prevailing circumstances in society. If any practice or law is unsuitable for the population as a whole, or even to a part of it, it needs to be changed.

Islamic principles and the Shariah demand that laws should be made against anything that deprives people of their fundamental rights and that is detrimental to their physical and mental growth. Child marriage is nothing but legalised long-term child abuse and rape, ostensibly sanctioned by society. It is a violation of a child’s human rights. It can cause deep wounds because of early sexual activity; she often becomes pregnant at an age when neither her body nor her physiological functions are developed enough; she can go through extreme pain and she will likely have many pregnancies (both full-term and abortions) during her lifetime. She will constantly face ill health and high morbidity. Her children will be malnourished and stunted and may not able to become full and active members of society.

The Quran wants society to be built on the family as a unit, with both partners supporting each other, being there for the ups and downs of life: “They (your wives) are your garment and you are a garment for them” (2:187). This is the most beautiful description of what marriage means: equality between partners; openness and complete confidence in each other; protection and solace to each other against unfavourable circumstances and embellishing and gracing each other’s personality. Can the unequal and authoritative, often abusive relationship between a child wife and a much older husband meet these requirements?

Instead of furnishing arguments in favour of child marriages, the legislators and the CII should be working towards raising awareness regarding the ills of early and forced marriage and ensure implementation of laws against child marriages. Unfortunately politicians in our country are either too weak to raise their voice against child marriages or they have a nexus with the so-called religious elements. This unholy alliance has been a barrier to promoting the socially just and egalitarian society that Islam stands for.

The Child Brides

Over the years, with increasing global attention to human and child rights, the frequency of child marriages has somewhat declined. Today, one in three girls are married when they are children, as against one in four in 1990. More and more countries are legislating to raise the age of marriage, and while implementation is far from ideal, such laws have acted as a deterrent to early and forced marriages.

The 10 countries with highest prevalence rates of child marriage are Niger: 76%; Central African Republic: 68%; Chad: 67%; Bangladesh: 59%; South Sudan: 52%; Mali: 52%; Guinea: 52%; Burkina Faso: 52%; Mozambique: 48% and Somalia: 45%. All of them are countries in which there is either no minimum legal age for marriage or it is below 18 years. They are also poor and fragile countries, with high levels of illiteracy.

In Saudi Arabia, a country which has the most conservative laws for women, the Shurah Council approved regulations in January 2019 to prohibit marriage for girls and boys under 15, and those under 18 will need approval from a specialised court.

Iran continues with 13 years for girls as the legal age for marriage and it remains difficult to change the law. In Algeria, the minimum age for girls is 18 and 21 for boys; for Egypt it is 16 for girls and 18 for boys; in Iraq, Jordan and Morocco, it is 18 for both; in Tunisia it is 20 for both and in Yemen, it is 15 for both.

In India, the law states that a girl cannot marry before the age of 18, and a boy before 21. However, according to UNICEF, 47% of the girls are married by 18 years of age, and 18% are married by 15 years of age. In what was a landmark decision, the Indian Supreme Court recently ruled that sex with child brides would be considered rape.

In Pakistan, 21% of girls are married before the age of 18 and 3% before they turn 15. Child marriages are particularly prevalent in rural areas. Pakistan has the 6th highest number of child brides in the world: 1.9 million. Pakistan has committed to ending child and forced marriages by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5:3. The KPK Parliamentary Women Caucus has recently signed an MoU with the UN Women to raise awareness and conduct advocacy campaigns on issues of child marriage and trafficking.