The Child Brides of Islam

The New York Times published an article last week, Tiny Voices Defy Child Marriage in Yemen, about a stunning act of courage and feminism: in the nation of Yemen, a 9-year-old girl named Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali, on her own initiative, sought and obtained a divorce from the abusive, violent 35-year-old man she had been forcibly married to. Her success echoes that of a 10-year-old girl, Nujood Ali, who escaped a similar arranged marriage a month earlier.

Having just finished Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s gripping memoir of a childhood in cultures where female slavery is the norm, I feel I have a better appreciation now for the crushing oppression of these girls’ society. Like Hirsi Ali’s childhood home of Somalia, rural Yemen is a society where women are assumed, from birth onward, to be the property of a man, and systematically denied every opportunity they might ever have to choose their own course in life.

…despite a rising tide of outrage, the fight against the practice is not easy. Hard-line Islamic conservatives, whose influence has grown enormously in the past two decades, defend it, pointing to the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a 9-year-old. Child marriage is deeply rooted in local custom here, and even enshrined in an old tribal expression: “Give me a girl of 8, and I can give you a guarantee” for a good marriage. (Shades of the Jesuits: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man” —Ebonmuse)

Inequality imbues the very air of this society, which makes it all the more noteworthy that some women have begun to fight back. In interviews, the article hints at the amazing maturity of these girls – children thrust into a situation that seemed far beyond their ken, far beyond any possibility of resistance, who nevertheless fought back and won.

As she told her story, Nujood gradually gained confidence, smiling shyly as if she were struggling to hold back laughter. Later, she removed her veil, revealing her shoulder-length brown hair.

…It was the first time she had traveled anywhere alone, Nujood recalled, and she was frightened. On arriving at the courthouse, she was told the judge was busy, so she sat on a bench and waited. Suddenly he was standing over her, imposing in his dark robes. “You’re married?” he said, with shock in his voice.

…When Nujood’s case was called the next Sunday, the courtroom was crowded with reporters and photographers, alerted by her lawyer. Her father and husband were also there; the judge had jailed them the night before to ensure that they would appear in court. (Both were released the next day.) “Do you want a separation, or a permanent divorce?” the judge, Muhammad al-Qadhi, asked the girl, after hearing her testimony and that of her father and her husband.

“I want a permanent divorce,” she replied, without hesitation. The judge granted it.

Asked what made her flee her husband after so many months, Arwa gazed up, an intense, defiant expression in her eyes.

“I thought about it,” she said in a very quiet but firm voice. “I thought about it.”

For their age, their courage and determination is astounding. It may well be that these girls succeeded because they are children, and haven’t yet internalized the ideas of female oppression and inequality that are pervasive in their culture. Of course, they also had a major stroke of good fortune: both of them found sympathetic judges, rather than Islamic conservatives whose minds were warped by dogma and who probably would have sent them back to their abusive husbands.

Child marriage, like female genital mutilation, cannot be blamed solely on Islam. It’s a custom common to many tribes in this area of the world, and most likely predates the spread of that religion. On the other hand, Islam has done little or nothing to stamp it out, and as the above quotes show, is now acting as a major obstacle in the fight to put a stop to it. Like most religions historically, Islam has tended to endorse, rather than oppose, the immoral practices of its culture of origin. Worse, it makes those practices that much harder to end by putting the stamp of God’s approval on them.

If we’re ever to stop this practice, almost certainly the best way is through the education of women. When family planning is unknown and women are uneducated, they tend to have many more children, which makes it impossible for impoverished parents to care for them all and encourages the practice of marrying daughters off at an early age. Education and contraception, more than anything else, will loosen the grip of the misogynist superstitions and appalling poverty that conspire to force women into this fate.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.