23 June 2012
To break free from the shackles of backwardness, community leaders should question the HC judgment that legitimises a 15-year-old girl’s marriage
WHEN THE phenomenally regressive Delhi High Court judgment was passed on 9 May stating that a 15-year-old Muslim girl’s marriage was legal, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) was the first to hail it. If it enthuses the AIMPLB so much that a girl, who should ideally be going to school and learning life skills, is pushed into matrimony in order to harness her fertility at the first biological opportunity, then what business does it have to complain about Muslims being backward?
Arguably, 15 years and 10 months is not too young, given that many girls are known to become sexually active by that age. But a closer look at the judgment reveals that it does not set age as the benchmark, but menarche as the determining factor for when a Muslim girl can be legally married. Like a pet animal who we joyously send for mating once she is in “heat”. Sounds derogatory? It is.
It is exactly what the high court judgment can lead to, which in the name of cultural relativism propounds that “According to Mohammedan law, a girl can marry without the consent of her parents once she attains the age of puberty and she has the right to reside with her husband even if she is below the age of 18.”
Now consider its implications. It creates the possibility that in future, another court may decide to use Mohammedan law for issuing dehumanising punishments such as stoning for a Muslim woman charged with adultery or amputating the arm of a Muslim youth charged with theft.
With the age of puberty being consistently lowered, this judgment may well pave the way for young girls to be married off as early as nine years of age. If religious sensitivities are cast aside, legalising marriage of pubescent girls is akin to legitimising rape.
The judgment evokes two fundamental questions that must be asked if India has to ensure the right to equality and equal treatment of all its citizens — are Muslim girls not human? Or are Muslims in India not Indians? It is ironical that just when India, in an attempt to address child sexual abuse, proposed to raise the age of consent for sex from 16 to 18 years, the high court judgment has decided that Muslim girls do not need any such legal protection.
It was the plight of such young girls that led to the enactment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, which fixed a minimum age for the marriage of girls and boys, but notably, only laid down penalties, leaving unaffected the legal validity of marriages hit by its provisions. It is this loophole that the recent high court judgment takes advantage of, putting young girls at the risk of sexual exploitation. Anyone with a reasonable understanding of adolescent sexual health knows that a girl married off at a young age is highly unlikely to use contraceptives, thus very likely to become pregnant early on, having to give birth when neither her body nor her mind is ready for it. Besides, this deprives her of her right to education, health and well-being.
The regressive high court judgment puts young Muslim girls at the risk of sexual exploitation
Studies show that the level of participation of Muslim students in educational institutions is almost a quarter of what it should be. The Sachar Committee report, too, highlights the chronic backwardness of Muslims. But while it makes several recommendations for the State to fulfil, including reservation, why does it not make a single recommendation for the community itself and their self-appointed spokespersons? Can any change be orchestrated only from the outside, unless there is willingness and wisdom from within to challenge prevalent socio-cultural practices that impede the community’s development? When a girl is allowed to be married off at a young age in the name of cultural protectionism and starts having babies when she should herself be in school, what kind of education can she provide to her children? When her own body is growing and needs nutrition, what is likely to be the health of those babies she gives birth to? By legitimising marriage of pubescent girls, the high court seems to covertly declare that Muslim girls are somehow lesser beings, whose rights can be compromised due to their religious identity.
Now, a brief explanation about why I am afraid to disclose my name. In India, you are either a secular (read: Hindu-basher) or an RSS activist (read: thirsting for the blood of Muslims). There is no room for the thinking Hindu — or Muslim or any other minority for that matter — who may, for example, want to know the reason for the double standards applied to young Muslim girls when they have the same anatomy and physiology as any other Indian girl or woman? The plight of the last such voice of reason that asked Muslims to move beyond the Gujarat riots is well-known. How my views are read will be determined by who I am. If I am a Hindu, my views will be immediately dismissed as that of a Muslim-hater. If I am a Muslim, there may be more legitimacy to my thoughts but also possible ridicule. For me, it is important that the shadow of my identity does not destroy the validity of my thoughts. So I choose to remain anonymous.
The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own.
Anonymous is child rights activist.