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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Christopher

    While I do not support the institution of child marraige (or any marraige, for that matter – we would be a lot better off without this institution if you ask me…) I can’t help but notice the ethnocentrism of this article: you begin with the assumption that somehow this culture’s approach to sexuality is not “moral” in some way while yours is – on what basis should I accept that assumption? What makes your “morality” superior to the “morality” of the culture you stand against? What grounds do you have for implementing your own mores and values in another culture anyways?

    Like I said before I do not share the views and opinions of this culture – in fact I find it very repressive – but also I see no reason why anyone else should impose their own brand of “morality” on them. I suggest letting the culture in question take its own course – whether it be towards a “better” future or towards their own destruction – and instead work on shedding the dead weight in our own culture (“laws,” “morality,” “race” and other arbitrary catagorizations of people; etc…).

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    I would argue that any culture that systematically reduces over half of its population to chattel status is immoral, because a bedrock of morality – across the world – consists of treating people LIKE PEOPLE. I don’t think that needs defending. It’s where we start.

    It is immoral to deny the personhood of half the species.

  • bestonnet

    Christopher:
    That sounds way too much like moral relativism for my liking.

    A culture in which people can be forcibly married does have an inferior morality to our culture which does not force people to marry (at least not as overtly).

  • Polly

    @Christopher,

    you begin with the assumption that somehow this culture’s approach to sexuality is not “moral” in some way while yours is

    I hope you’re being ironic.
    What does a 10 year old pre-pubescent girl need with sex? Is pedophilia simply a different moral code? The girl was beaten and raped. Are we supposed to say it’s OK under the guise of culture?

    I suggest letting the culture in question take its own course

    Then you should be happy. No one is imposing their culture in this situation. While I loathe what one professor refered to as “colonial feminism”, that’s not what happened. The girl herself wanted out and she, herself, demanded a divorce with the encouragement of her own uncle. It was a local female lawyer and local judge who helped the girl achieve freedom.

    She’s not the only as the article makes clear. At every level there are those within the nation trying to change the system. A system that was foisted onto the people by “outsiders” in the first place, i.e. the northern religious fanatics. The change can, will, and should come from within the broader culture from people like her and Ms. Nasser and the “liberal” judge and many others.

    In the interest of freedom to choose one’s own morality, you should applaud her amazing courage. If “race” and “law” and “morality” are all arbitrary, then so is the stupid tradition she stood up to. She has more courage at 10 than I had at 25. And she stood up to her oppressor without the influence of internet or TV.

  • Christopher

    The Ridger,

    “I would argue that any culture that systematically reduces over half of its population to chattel status is immoral, because a bedrock of morality – across the world – consists of treating people LIKE PEOPLE. I don’t think that needs defending. It’s where we start.”

    Almost every “morality” that has ever been conceived of throughout the history of civilization has involved one people group exherting dominence over another – it’s where such institutions like marraige and government came form in the first place. The only difference I see in the “morality” of Islamic culture and that of our present social order is one of degree rather than essence – both ultimately seek to mold us into “good” little citiznes and serve it throughout or lives, the Islamic culture is just more open about that (as can be seen through the child marraige tradition).

    Bestonnet,

    “That sounds way too much like moral relativism for my liking.

    A culture in which people can be forcibly married does have an inferior morality to our culture which does not force people to marry (at least not as overtly).”

    1. I’m a Nihilist – I’ve never made any secret of that on this site. Of course I see all “moral” systems as just arbitrary rules to govern individual behavior to best serve the interests of the social order!

    2. What do you base your claim of superiority upon? Why is your “morality” superior to any other? What all systems of “morality” boil down to is “because my social order says so!” – there’s no escaping that.

    Polly,

    “What does a 10 year old pre-pubescent girl need with sex?”

    It’s not for her – it’s for the maintainence of the social order, which sees submissive women as being vital to its existence. I don’t like this idea, but I don’t see any reason why we should be outraged by it or try to do anything about it.

    You know how it is – even those perceived as the devil require an advocate, so for now I’m filling that role.

    Also Polly,

    “Is pedophilia simply a different moral code? The girl was beaten and raped. Are we supposed to say it’s OK under the guise of culture?”

    Well, to be blunt, yes – it is just another “morality” if a social order adopts the practice as its own: the same would be true of any other action that can be commited by anyone.

    Also, thge social order defines what “rape” is – if the action in question hasn’t been condemned as “rape” by the social order, then it’s not “rape” in that the context of the existing cultural mores and values.

    Also Polly,

    “Then you should be happy. No one is imposing their culture in this situation. While I loathe what one professor refered to as “colonial feminism”, that’s not what happened. The girl herself wanted out and she, herself, demanded a divorce with the encouragement of her own uncle. It was a local female lawyer and local judge who helped the girl achieve freedom.”

    I read the attatched article – and I know that no outside social orders are imposing on this particular case. I’m all for self-determination to the greatest extent possible according to one’s own predispositions, and it seems as though the direction they are headed in is of the culture’s own accord.

    My post was addressing the overall attitude of the article written by Ebonmuse – it just stuck me as having an air of “moral” superiority about it, so I took on the role of devil’s advocate in the spirit of providing a balancing counterpoint.

  • He Who Invents Himself

    Christopher:

    If child marriage, regular beatings, rape and killing in honor, systematic destruction of self-identity, and all-around general submission of woman and girls, are in fact just an equal and arbitrary version of morality, then the whole point of morality is null and void. I think different moral systems are inherently unequal, and we can unequivocally evaluate them based on their real and potential effects to everyone’s lives. Good moral systems bring about good in the world and relieve it of bad, while bad moral systems do just the opposite. Is that not a simple and self-evident way to see the horror described in Ebonmuse’s article?

    Are freedom and equality merely different from closed-mindedness and oppression, with no rational reason for a preference? Why should we “impose” our morality on a different culture? Why should we right what’s wrong in the world? Why should we do what our own morality prescribes us to do if it conflicts with a different morality? Why don’t we just let the innocents of their culture suffer its defects and live our own lives in the good light? These are not questions of cultural arrogance, but of moral fortitude.

    A morality that actually does what it’s supposed to do, make people happy, is superior to ones that do not, essentially by definition. A morality that is backwards and inflicts harm on its users should be brought down for the sake of those people suffering under it.

  • He Who Invents Himself

    On topic -

    I think it’s great that these stories occasionally frequent our news media. In spite of the fact that they’re right alongside stories of terrorism and violence, it tells us that all is not lost. It reveals the hopeful flexibility in people’s minds to turn away this obsolete and outdated barbarism. That people can think for themselves, that they can question all the evil that is perpetrated. My heart goes out to these people.

    As Ayaan said in her book, a problem in our advanced and freer nations is that we are allowing absurd practices (that clearly break our laws and morals) to thrive in their cultural-religious bubbles that are emerging in our lands. (For example, Ayaan cites forced marriage, beatings, and honor killings. The Dutch government did not believe these were real threats, but when she asked them to track the number of honor killings over a period of time, Holland became surprised at seeing the facts.) We cannot allow this to happen in our societies. Getting it to stop in the more Islamic conservative societies, though, will be a much harder task.

  • Christopher

    He who invents himself,

    “If child marriage, regular beatings, rape and killing in honor, systematic destruction of self-identity, and all-around general submission of woman and girls, are in fact just an equal and arbitrary version of morality, then the whole point of morality is null and void.”

    The point of your interpretation of “morality” would be, but not those interpretations that serve the purpose of the social order – which is the whole reason the concept exists in the first place.

    Also He who…,

    “I think different moral systems are inherently unequal, and we can unequivocally evaluate them based on their real and potential effects to everyone’s lives. Good moral systems bring about good in the world and relieve it of bad, while bad moral systems do just the opposite. Is that not a simple and self-evident way to see the horror described in Ebonmuse’s article?”

    So tell me – what is “good” – or “bad” for that matter – and how do we differentiate between the two? Remember: what is “good” to one individual or collective body may be bad to another – what would have been viewed as “bad” by the girl in the story would have been “good” for her husband and the social order that promotes child weddings.

    The terms “good” and “bad” are relative to perspective and thus of no use to me…

    Also He who…,

    “Are freedom and equality merely different from closed-mindedness and oppression, with no rational reason for a preference?”

    In absolute terms, yes – it matters little in the long run whether we as humans live comfortable lives or lives filled with misery. But I don’t live for the long run: as John Meynard Keynes once siad “in the long run, we’re all dead.”

    In terms of preference – based on what the individual perceives as valuable to himself – no: what matters to individuals is that he attain the power to make his own will a reality to the greatest extent possible. The ability for the common man to do this in an oppressive social order is limited, but there are more options with less restrictive social orders and still even more where there is little (if any) social order at all!

    Also He who…,

    “Why should we “impose” our morality on a different culture? Why should we right what’s wrong in the world? Why should we do what our own morality prescribes us to do if it conflicts with a different morality?”

    My solution to your questions is quite simple: get rid of “morality” within our own social order. If other social orders don’t follow, they will simply suffer the consequenses of refusing to update as their culture destroys itself trying to maintain stability.

    Let the weak perish for their weakness while the rest of us move on – that’s my solution to this world’s problems.

  • ildi

    Christopher: “Also, thge social order defines what “rape” is – if the action in question hasn’t been condemned as “rape” by the social order, then it’s not “rape” in that the context of the existing cultural mores and values.”

    WTF?

    “Let the weak perish for their weakness while the rest of us move on – that’s my solution to this world’s problems.”

    Has a troll moved in? Creepy; I hope you don’t live in my neck of the woods!

  • ildi

    Oh, and using quotes all over the place doesn’t change the common meaning of words, dude.

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” -Inigo Motoya

    Verbal masturbators get on my last nerve.

  • mikespeir

    Christopher:

    “…what matters to individuals is that he attain the power to make his own will a reality to the greatest extent possible.”

    Really? Says who? If so, don’t we have a moral obligation to see it happens? Or is it only Number One we should be looking after?

    “The ability for the common man to do this in an oppressive social order is limited, but there are more options with less restrictive social orders and still even more where there is little (if any) social order at all!”

    Oppressive? How do you make that judgment? Upon what basis?

    “Let the weak perish for their weakness while the rest of us move on – that’s my solution to this world’s problems.”

    Solution? For whom? What happens when you prove to be the weaker? Don’t you know that, in the end, there will only be one “baddest” person left alive?

    I’m telling you, no matter how you might try to defend your point of view, I’m thankful it can safely be ignored–for your sake and mine!

  • Alex Weaver

    While I do not support the institution of child marraige (or any marraige, for that matter – we would be a lot better off without this institution if you ask me…) I can’t help but notice the ethnocentrism of this article: you begin with the assumption that somehow this culture’s approach to sexuality is not “moral” in some way while yours is – on what basis should I accept that assumption? What makes your “morality” superior to the “morality” of the culture you stand against? What grounds do you have for implementing your own mores and values in another culture anyways?

    Like I said before I do not share the views and opinions of this culture – in fact I find it very repressive – but also I see no reason why anyone else should impose their own brand of “morality” on them. I suggest letting the culture in question take its own course – whether it be towards a “better” future or towards their own destruction – and instead work on shedding the dead weight in our own culture (“laws,” “morality,” “race” and other arbitrary catagorizations of people; etc…).

    …because this cultural practice is manifestly harmful?

  • Christopher

    Mike,

    “Really? Says who? If so, don’t we have a moral obligation to see it happens? Or is it only Number One we should be looking after?’

    Says the individuals that seek to determine their own lives – and no, there is no obligation on anyone’s part to give it to them. We must learn to take what we want rather than expect some other power to benevolently give it to us.

    Also Mike

    “Oppressive? How do you make that judgment? Upon what basis?”

    “Oppressive” being defined as interfering with the end goals of the indvidual – by this standard, most “laws” are oppressive as they seek to inhibit the many for the sake of benefiting the few that hold the reigns of power in society.

    On what basis do I judge this? Well, my own – since there’s no objective standard for determining where the power of the social order should begin/end I take that power upon myself for the purpose of achieving my own ends.

    Also Mike,

    “Solution? For whom? What happens when you prove to be the weaker?”

    *IF* that day ever comes I would have to succumb to natural selection – just like everything else in nature that can’t compete in this Darwinian arms race called life.

    Alex Weaver,

    “…because this cultural practice is manifestly harmful?”

    To whom? Keep in mind that it certainly does benefit somebody – otherwise it would not have lasted, as useless institutions die off due to the lack of adopting parties.

    Niether of us support this practice (I take that a step further – as I’m against all forms of marraige), but I don’t think my view of the issue is any more or less legitimate than any other – thus I simply let nature take its course when it doesn’t affect me or my own. I say let the existing social order war amongst itself over whether to continue this practice or not – and let whoever is the stronger reign supreme in that culture.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Christopher,

    Let me put this in terms you understand better.

    A) It’s your opinion that neither set of morals or culture are better
    B) We have no reason to force our way of non-raping, non-child marrying, non-abusing morals onto other groups of people; fair enough.
    C) As far as I see, from your view point, we also have no reason to NOT force our morality on other people; who are you to tell us we shouldn’t be doing this if enough of us want to or feel that such things are inhuman and immoral and want to change them? Just because YOU don’t like the way other people you’re trying to make them think like you do? Who are you to say your way is better. You should just step aside and let the cultural outrage exist and be as it will.

  • He Who Invents Himself

    I’d like to point out that the discussion has nearly been substituted by a discussion of moral relativism, based solely off of the “attitude” of this post. Nevertheless, I’ll continue on this tangent.

    Christopher:

    Perhaps the stronger will reign supreme in that culture. But by what right? Where do the strong get the righteousness to impose their will and preferences upon the weak? How are those imposers any different from us imposers? Well, obviously, one of us is working towards more eventual happiness and less suffering, but what the heck, right? You’re criticizing us for being culturally arrogant (or at least intervenient), but you’re sparing the perpetrators the same criticism of unjustifiable oppression, even though it is of a much more heinous nature!

    If you really held the apathetic position of letting the strong take over the weak, then we wouldn’t be carrying out this conversation right now. If us modern nations are even stronger than these barbaric ones, economically, militarily, ideologically, or otherwise, then you should let enlightenment happen hunky-dory, correct? In fact, the whole idea of letting the strong take over the weak assumes that you are neither of the two, so that you may “let” it happen. Why not just be the stronger ones, and get involved? Do you have any “end goals” as an individual that could include a better life for other people? Or are you as reprehensible as you make yourself out to be?

  • http://www.currion.net Paul C

    Let the weak perish for their weakness while the rest of us move on – that’s my solution to this world’s problems.

    I’m going to take a wild guess here, but the person who wrote this gem is a middle class male living at the higher socioeconomic end of a liberal market democracy.

    Back on topic: education is the key to ending practices such as this. The problem is that such education can’t be introduced from outside – it will take individuals like Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali working inside their own social circles, and all we can do is support their attempts to spread that message.

  • ildi

    Paul: See, my guess is, he’s a college freshman who took his first philosophy class/just read Ayn Rand – I think it’s the random use of quotes that gives it away. But, yeah, only someone at the top of the heap worries about “morals” and “laws” “oppressing” his right to “rape” at will.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    Sounds like a Randian to me.

    Not to mention horribly shortsighted. As a species, are survival strategy has always been a social order. If he does this “strong oppress the weak” psuedo-social darwinism, he’s shooting himself in the foot.

  • Christopher

    He Who Invents Himself,

    “Perhaps the stronger will reign supreme in that culture. But by what right? Where do the strong get the righteousness to impose their will and preferences upon the weak?”

    What “right?” I support letting other cultures be run by whoever is stronger not because it’s “right,” but because we have no vested interests in controlling their social destiny: our nation’s only real interest in this part of the world is oil, not promoting social change or “making lives ‘better’ for everyone else” – if that happens so be it, but that’s not our driving goal.

    Also He who…,

    “Well, obviously, one of us is working towards more eventual happiness and less suffering, but what the heck, right? You’re criticizing us for being culturally arrogant (or at least intervenient), but you’re sparing the perpetrators the same criticism of unjustifiable oppression, even though it is of a much more heinous nature!”

    1. I’m particularly peeved at Humanist thinking as it assumes that somehow humans are the center of our existence – that the individual is to ensure that everyone else around him is happy and trusts them to return the favor. I don’t have that kind of faith in our species: we seem to be geared towards looking out for ourselves and our own first, not anyone else.

    So I pursue the alternative path: seek happiness for myself and mine and not pay much mind to those that fall outside that catagory.

    2. My problem isn’t with the act being commited so much as it is with the arrogence of “moral” absolutists that assume that their condemnation of said acts (“heinous” ones – according to your standards of “morality”) are indeed “righteous” in some way – as “right” and “wrong” are just ideas, not absolutes forever set in stone: I would have the same problem with the people condemned in the article if they sought to impose their own “morality” on our culture.

    Also He who…,

    “In fact, the whole idea of letting the strong take over the weak assumes that you are neither of the two, so that you may “let” it happen. Why not just be the stronger ones, and get involved?”

    I don’t get involved in this little tussle over tribal traditions because (a) I have no vested interest in its outcome and (b) to expend any energy on this would waste strenght I could otherwise expend on things that are more immediate concerns to me (like defense of my property, seeing my family’s needs met and keeping the “law” away from my territory). My goals aren’t global – they’re local: global ambitions have a history of failing miserably when the strength of the party that founded them fails – just look at every empire (both plitical and economic) in the course of human history, they all eventually fall apart and leave nothing but choas in their wake!

    Also He who…,

    “Do you have any “end goals” as an individual that could include a better life for other people? Or are you as reprehensible as you make yourself out to be?”

    I plan to improve the lives of myself and those close to me through any means in my power, everyone else will have to fend for themselves. It sounds cold, but ultimately that’s how natural selection works: those who are strong enough to ensure the survival of themselves and family make it, the rest don’t.

  • Christopher

    ildi,

    “See, my guess is, he’s a college freshman who took his first philosophy class/just read Ayn Rand – I think it’s the random use of quotes that gives it away. But, yeah, only someone at the top of the heap worries about “morals” and “laws” “oppressing” his right to “rape” at will.”

    1. I’ve been out of college for a while now: I tried the business world and hated it. I’ve returned to my hometown and now have my own little business (no, I’m not saying what it is).

    2. I won’t deny that Rand influenced my thinking, but Machiavelli, Nietzche and Derrida have had more influence on me than Rand.

    3. I don’t “rape” anyone – but I do see what we tend to call “law” as oppressive: it’s really bad for my business and my clients.

    And yes, I also see “morality” as a top-down structure: it’s only real purpose is to keep people subservient to a core group of the social elite.

  • He Who Invents Himself

    ildi, you are mocking and dismissing Christopher, not arguing with him, and I think that’s pointless.

    Christopher:

    Humanist thinking puts people at the top of the agenda. It’s not a magical mandate, it is a choice to act and think for others and happiness. I value others and everyone’s happiness, therefore it makes sense for me to endorse humanism. (Whereas you choose to endorse natural selection at the cost of the weaker people, like children.) I am not an absolutist. I have argued here at Daylight Atheism that moral relativism does not self-contradict and that morality is subjective. Even with relativism, that does not stop me from from having my own perspective, my own frame of reference, built upon my personal values. Fact is, most people share to some degree in my values, and so it makes sense for us to talk about other things from this perspective. Hence I can agree with Ebonmuse that the practice of child marriage is indeed heinous. (According to the MW dictionary, heinous means something that is shocking and causes harm. Do you agree with me that child marriage is heinous?) Also, according to my own perspective, I should “impose” my morality on others – because that is the only way to effect more happiness and less suffering in the world. Would you impose your own morality on a murderer that is attacking you by defending yourself? Would defending yourself be a form of arrogance? It’s a similar situation here – but we are defending the weak from the oppressive strong.

  • ildi

    He Who Invents Himself: you call it mocking, I call it troll-baiting.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Don’t feed the trolls, folks.