By Rinsola Abiola
24 JULY 2013
If there's one thing that I admire most about Islam, it's the way and manner in which it elevated a society from the depths of savagery and made them the 'best of mankind'. I happen to be of the opinion that when we do disagree in matters relating to religion, instead of resorting to personal attacks we should try to refute the 'offensive' argument with evidence from the Quran and Sunnah. I happen to believe that child marriage is neither advisable nor Islamically endorsed. ...And Allah knows best.
Those of us who take time to learn about reproductive health and teach it to others surely know the risks of early sexual exposure. It is a scientifically proven fact that childbirth below the age of 17 could have serious adverse effects on a woman's health -- an increased risk of developing cervical cancer, vesico vaginal Fistula (VVF) and maternal mortality. It is also much more common for under-aged mums to attempt killing their babies. I totally acknowledge the fact that cervical cancer has many other risk factors, but evidence of its prevalence amongst women who had too early sexual exposure and became mothers below 17 cannot be refuted. With respect to VVF, there are an estimated 800,000 cases in northern Nigeria, and this would not matter if the practice of taking child brides was not prevalent there; unless, of course, someone can prove without an iota of doubt that these alarming statistics have nothing to do with this practice.
I totally acknowledge the fact that betrothal can occur years (or even decades) before consummation, but if these men were as patient with their brides, as some would have us believe, then, why is VVF so common? I won't vilify the men, because some of them actually treat their wives right and wait for them to fully develop and even make appreciable impacts on their lives, but the fact remains that an overwhelming majority don't.
The word 'developed' is very relative; some hinge this on menstruation, others on the moment a girl begins to grow breasts, but the one thing that I really wish would be put into cognizance is the fact that outward endowment and inner development are two extremely different things and therefore occur at different paces. I know many ladies who began to menstruate when they were 8; would those claiming that the 'third menstruation should be in her husband's house' really suggest that these CHILDREN have adult organs shoved into their tiny bodies simply because they are 'women now'? Would these people really recommend that an 8-year-old be allowed to indulge in a sex act and be put through child birth simply because she has started menstruating? Would they permit anyone do that to their own daughters?
One bitter truth: child marriage has always been closely associated with low socio-economic status. In reality, many of these girls are sold (not married) off in order to alleviate poverty. This is even more painful in light of the fact that, once these girls develop VVF, these same 'loving' husbands are quick to disown them and move on to the next child. All for what? The pleasure of marrying a virgin?
Also, most divorced women fall between the 18-25 age group; this is because rushing into marriage without fully understanding what it entails can only lead to beating a hasty retreat out of it. Married at 11, divorced (more like abandoned with VVF) by 19 -- is this the kind of life we want for our children? If this is not true, then, why is the rate of divorce so high?
Now, Islamically, what are the prerequisites for marriage? Mutual attraction (2:221. 30:21, 33:52. 2:235); similar faith (2:221, 60:10); the Mehr (dowry) must be paid (4:4. 4:24); the two parties must fully understand what marriage entails (4:21. 2:232, 2:237, 24:33); to be matured (not maturing), i.e., one must have passed the stage of puberty (4:6, 24:31, 24:58-59). In the case of an unsuccessful marriage, one should be capable of initiating divorce and understanding the proceedings [2:226-232, 2:241, 4:35, 4:128-130, 33:49, 65:1-6].
Some have suggested that counselling/mental and physical evaluation centres be set up in order to determine who is actually developed enough for marriage and who isn't, and that the decision of whether or not to go ahead be placed on the verdict of well-trained and qualified personnel. This would go a long way in solving the dilemma of an exact age not being specified and also stop these girls from being put in harm's way. This would also be in line with Quranic provisions that they be tested until they reach this age.
The argument that I personally find most shallow is that of '13-year-olds can get pregnant for their boyfriends, but they can't get married?' to which I say: upbringing goes a long way in determining what activities a child will be engaged in at that age. That some lost their virginity at 13 does not mean that all of us did, or that every child will. Why are we making examples of those pregnant teens, and not of many sisters who married in their mid-20s and were chaste? Why not say 'why should a 13-year-old have sex when 23- year-olds are virgins?' The truth of the matter is: a 13-year-old shouldn't be having sex in the first place and marriage is therefore not a solution to that! 'Legalizing' sex for children is like saying 'why criminalize corruption when politicians are bound to steal? Why don't we just increase their allowances by 100,000 per cent?'
Even more shocking was someone giving the excuse that 'fathers rape their daughters because they get tempted by their outward appearance'. In other words, incest can be excused in cases where the 'developed' child has not been shipped off to the husband's house because, after all, a man is a man and could find even his own daughter irresistible (Aoodhu Billah!). Somehow, the victim should be blamed for being 'developed' and we're all supposed to sympathize with the harassed father, not castrate him. Men who paint fellow men in such a bad light and portray them all like irrational beasts with hormones raging out of control really deserve to be condemned by all sane men!
The aim of Shariah is not to cause hardship or suffering, or diseases for that matter! The 800,000 women living with VVF and thousands of others dying from complications during child birth are a serious situation that needs to be urgently addressed. Islam elevates mankind, yet we hinge a practice that puts our girls in early graves and leads to their abandonment after becoming diseased on Islam.
How many wealthy men who go about buying child brides give out their own daughters as children? Child marriage, poverty and illiteracy among women are closely linked; any wonder why we still have many poor widows and women who find it hard to sustain themselves without a man in the picture? That many wealthy people do not have a college degree does not make them stark illiterates. Some child brides furthered their education; thousands of others did not. Would it not amount to selfishness to not consider this large majority too?
Are we as one Ummah going to keep quiet about this, or will we rise to the challenge and speak with one voice against a practice that has so many unfavourable side-effects? Islam was established as a way of life by defying the norm.
If the blessed generation, the early Muslims, were concerned about not ruffling feathers, then, polytheism would have remained the status quo. Somewhere, a girl just bled to death because she had a child when her body could not support one. It's high time we put an end to high maternal mortality, to VVF, to high divorce rates and reduced the risk of cancer in our women. It's high time the concerned amongst us reached out to Muslim opinion leaders and clerics and made them realize the danger of continuing this way.