By Arzu Kaya Uranli
April 18, 2014
A friend of mine sent me a a Daily Beast piece that said, "A new law would approve marriage to girls as young as nine in a bid to appease the nation's conservatives ahead of parliamentary elections in the Iraqi parliament in the last days before the April 30 election." and asked what I think about it as a Muslim mother from Turkey who has a beautiful daughter!
"What in the God's green earth are you talking about!... I started. My answer is simple: Both trying to make a new law to let girls marry as young as nine and claim that it's Islamic are not really acceptable. You cannot relate that wrongdoing with a religion! Underage marriages are child abuse and "abuse" doesn't have any religion or nationality.
However, this month's plan by Iraqi parliamentarians to legalize underage marriage at nine follows the Pakistan Islamic Council's demand last month that Pakistan abolish all legal restrictions on child marriage, the revelation that Syrian refugee girls are being sold into marriage against their will and the increased pressure in many African countries to ease the restrictions on selling child brides.
Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is catastrophic for most girls. The most common reasons for child marriage are poverty, lack of education, religious myths, and gender inequality in society, insufficient laws or belief of a culture that a girl would be safer once married.
A report from the UN's Children Fund (UNICEF) shows that a great number of adolescents give birth in developing countries, and they are mainly girls with little or no education from low-income households in rural areas. Also, a UNFPA survey that took place in 2010, in 54 of the world's poorest countries, 36.4 million women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported having given birth before they were 18. Bangladesh, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and Niger are countries where early marriage is the most common.
Nowadays, Islam is the major religion in most of those countries, thus one area of Islamic law that has been subject to heavy criticism. Many of them believe that Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) is the originator of this repugnant practice because some men use his marriage to Aisha (R.A.) as an excuse to marry girls at young ages and claim that they do it to honor Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.)'s Sunnah because it is known that his Sunnahs are the primary source of law, ethics and behaviour Muslims should follow besides the laws of the Koran. Yet again, these men purposely misapprehended Prophet Muhammad's Sunnah of marriage.
The best translation for Sunnah can be "a normative behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.)." He did marry nine times, and except Aisha (R.A.), all of his wives were previously married (either divorcees or widows) and they were quite old. His first wife, Khadijah (R.A.), was 15 years older: He was 25, she was 40 when they got married. Their marriage lasted for over 25 years by the time she passed away. Also, their marriage was monogamous, despite the regularity of polygamy at that time. Thus this marriage should also be considered as a standard of Sunnah marriage because this marriage was the longest for the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.).
Also, marriage and family have a very important place in Islam. In the Koran 30:21, marriage is described as combination of peace, comfort, tranquillity and fulfillment of a natural instinct. The text explains that an important purpose of marriage is to achieve psychological, emotional, and spiritual companionship. So to accomplish this type of companionship level, parties should be equal in a way of access to marriage and compatible in marriage. Thus, child marriages cannot be considered as Islamic because to perform the marriage according to Islamic principles, both parties should reach the age of maturity and physically, emotionally, and mentally to be able to consent independently. Islam clearly insists that marrying off a girl without her consent is not acceptable.
Maybe marriages at an early age are meant to protect girls' lives, yet instead they ruin their lives. Not only is it a violation of human rights and keeps girls from receiving an education, but is also a significant factor in long-term health complications. Underage brides are very vulnerable and they can suffer irreparable damage, if not death, after bearing children when their bodies are not fully prepared for pregnancy. UN statistics show:
"Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls ages 15-19 in developing countries. Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90 percent are already married. UNICEF estimates that some 50,000 die, almost all in low- and middle-income countries. Stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent higher among mothers under the age of 20 than in women who get pregnant in their 20s."
Early Age Marriages In Turkey
Even though child marriage is illegal in Turkey, it is a common practice in rural areas. When 33-year-old Berivan Elif Kılıç was officially elected mayor last week as a survivor of a child marriage, early marriages have become an issue of a discussion in Turkey. Kılıç said her mother had been married off at a similar age, so she did not think twice about having Berivan marry at 15. "Nobody is questioning why girls are being forced to marry at such a young age," she said. Ms.Kılıç wasn't the first child bride in Turkey and unfortunately, she will not be the last.
According to the Strategic Research Organization (USAK), child marriages in Turkey constitute 14 percent of all marriages. A study of Turkish marriage practices conducted by Hacettepe University in 2011 reveals that the issue of child brides may be more prevalent in Turkey than one might think. The study indicates that almost 40 percent of Turkish women between 15 and 49 years of age were married by their 18th birthday. This new tendency of a disproportionally higher number of underage girls is very disturbing especially when "there is an increase of 94.2% in application to courts by families to get marriage permit[s]," according to Professor Dr. Nazan Moroglu, president of the Turkish Federation of University Women. Dr. Moroglu indicates "the problem is not the law itself but its lack of implementation."
Actually, early marriage has been prohibited in Turkey since 1926. According to the Turkish Civil Code, a person may marry at age 17 with parental consent and at age 16 under special circumstances with court approval. The incidence of marriages of 16 and 17-year-old girls culturally is acceptable. According to the information from Dr. Erhan Tunç, an assistant professor at Gaziantep University, one in three marriages in Turkey involves at least one party under 18 years old. His research also puts forward that 82% of child brides in Turkey are illiterate. Also, in many cases girls get married while still only 11 to 14 years old to older adult men or widowers.
Flexibility in legislation on prohibition of child marriage, and poor implementation of existing laws are the main barriers for changing the mentality that doesn't distinguish child marriage as wrongdoing. Nevertheless, there are uplifting religious voices against child marriage recently in Turkey. In November 2013, the head of Turkey's Islamic Religious Affairs, Mehmet Görmez, condemned "parents who forcefully marry off underage girls to older men, without girls' consent, before they have not gained the maturity for being a wife and mother as 'ruthless'." He added that, "In Hanafi Madhhab minimum age for marriage is 17. Whoever claims an argument or justification [for child brides] in any Islamic source does injustice both to religion and that girl child. Thus it is all our responsibility to take all these information [historical facts] again and share them with society anew."
Nowadays, a faithful Muslim man should not think of getting married to an under aged girl with an excuse of 'honouring Sunnah' because early aged marriages harm the name of the religion. Also, it would be a big mistake to universalize a particular action of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) without analyzing the circumstances of his era. Also, to distinguish between culture and religion is a big challenge. Thus the minimum age decreed in marriage laws in the USA are dependent on cultural background in some way, and they change remarkably from state to state. For instance, in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, individuals can get married with parental consent at the young ages of 13 and 12, respectively.
Underage marriages occur not because Islam allows them to, but they occur because women are powerless to stop them and men allow the marriages to take place. In many communities, the fathers, village chiefs, and religious leaders, who have the privilege to make these decisions, are males. Thus empowering girls through education is a must to stop child marriages. Helping girls become aware of their rights by including gender equality in school curricula is crucial yet not only do girls need to be educated, but also men of the societies have to be educated to change their mindset. Governments, NGOs, local authorities, teachers, school directors, doctors, nurses and religious leaders have to work together to make it happen. At the local level, mutual efforts should be performed with some prominent members of community. Child marriages are a form of modern day slavery, and they have to end. Justice should prevail and Islam is a religion for peace not for violations of human rights.
Arzu Kaya Uranli Is a Freelance Columnist Journalist