During Ramadan, a great uproar took place in Nigeria over actions by the government that were interpreted as trying to legalise child marriage. During a constitutional review, Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima argued that a subsection of Nigeria’s 1999 constitution should not be removed as it affects the rights of Muslim women. Section 29 of the Nigerian constitution allows Nigerian citizens aged 18 and above to give up their citizenship. Section 29, 4(b) goes on further to elaborate that any married woman is deemed an adult regardless of her age, and should thus be allowed to forsake her citizenship as well. A large number of the lawmakers reviewing this section wanted to delete this clause; had subsection 4(b) been removed, it would be taken to mean that girls who are married before they are 18 years old are no longer deemed adults according to the Nigerian constitution while they are underage.
Senator Yerima objected to the removal of this section, claiming not only that it was un-Islamic but also that removal of this subsection would affect the rights of Muslim women. Three years ago, Senator Yerima married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl as his fourth wife, causing uproar among Nigerians, so we know that he has no problem with child marriages. His actions, and those of the senators who backed him up, came to be read as supporting child marriage and attempting to legalise it through the Nigerian constitution. This lead to massive uproar among Nigerians online: the hashtag #ChildNotBride was trending on Nigerian Twitter at that time; open letters and press statements were written; and there were petitions organised offline.
Regardless of whether the larger issue was about the citizenship rights of Nigerian women, the senator’s appeal, using Islam and Muslim women’s rights, became problematic in a country that is religiously and ethnically polarised. You would not know that child marriage does not uniquely affect Muslim girls and women in Nigeria from the way Nigerians have reacted to Senator Yerima. According to UNICEF, early marriage for girls is particularly common in Northern Nigeria, and in Nigeria as a whole the median age at marriage for women was 17 years old in 2005. Child marriages continue to be an issue in Nigeria, even though the country adopted the Child Rights Act in 2003; this act prohibits marriage under the age of 18 and was passed at the federal level.
It was relatively easy to find Muslim organisations that defended Senator Yerima’s views; for example, this Huffington Post write-up on the issue following recent events mentions a nongovernmental organisation whose director states that Islam does not place an age requirement on marriage. In Northern Nigerian states such as Zamfara, child marriages are apparently normalised and accepted, and no “grassroots Muslim activists based in the North wanted to go on record about child marriage” as that would make them unpopular. The most vocal voices against Senator Yerima seem to be coming from non-Muslims. One of the most vocal voices to emerge opposite Yerima has been that of Stella Damasus, a Nigerian actress and celebrity who released a video that went on to make rounds online, in which she spoke passionately on the issue of under-aged marriage. Both Stella Damasus and Senator Yerima were invited to Al Jazeera’s The Stream where they debated on child marriage.
Going through the media reporting on this issue, it felt like the voices been given a platform were not those of Muslim women or girls. Here is a Muslim man proudly dictating that his interpretations of Islamic law are mainstream and fashioning himself as someone who cares about the rights of Muslim women, but there is apparently no Muslim woman willing to speak out against child marriage as it is too risky and may make them unpopular. The only Muslim woman whose opinion on this affair was frequently cited was Maryam Uwais, lawyer and human rights advocate based in Kano. In a well-written essay that has also been republished and shared widely online, Uwais challenges Yerima’s view within the backdrop of her knowledge of Sharia law and Northern Nigeria. She points out that where there is silence in the texts or lack of unanimity, society should determine what is in its best interests and that the conditions child brides find themselves in are not compatible with Sharia law. Uwais’s tone is not as passionate or as challenging as that of Damasus’s, but her voice of reason was readily embraced by those who read her response to Senator Yerima and his brand of Islam.
Yet Uwais is far from being the only Muslim woman from Northern Nigeria who has written out against child marriage following the constitutional review; others include Hannatu Musawa, who labels child marriages as “thoughtless, unfair and scandalous,” and Zainab Shinkafi-Bagudu, who brings up the concept of maturity in Islamic law. These opinions challenge Yerima’s and suggest that there are activists in Northern Nigeria who are ready to go against the grain, even though they may not attract a large audience. Rather than focusing on Yerima who is really just speaking on his own behalf, or Damasus who as someone who is not Muslim cannot speak on behalf of the needs of Muslim women or girls, the mainstream media could have used the chance to place the voices of Muslim women and girls from Northern Nigeria in the spotlight.