A GIRL came to the Messenger of Allah (SAW), and reported that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. The Messenger of God gave her the choice between accepting the marriage or invalidating it. The girl said: Actually, I accept this marriage, but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right to force a husband on their child (Ibn-Majah).
Historically, what is called child marriage, minor marriage or teenage marriage has been with us since time immemorial – in both religions and cultures. Around 50BC Cleopatra married her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII; Mary (AS), the mother of Jesus Christ (AS) probably got married to a 90 year-old Joseph when she was only 12 or 14 years old (Catholic Encyclopaedia). In the Muslim book of hadith, Aisha (RA), the third wife of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), was by her own account only a teenager at the time of her marriage to the prophet (SAW). In more recent time, due to the 1371 plague in Europe, the average age at marriage for men was 24 and 16 for women. From the Indian 1921 census report, there were over 600 brides in India’s majority community in the age group of one to 12 months alone!
Currently in Africa, South Africa and Tanzania have the lowest allowable age of marriage for females at 12. All European countries allow marriage for females at 16 (except Turkey 17), in the United States there is no clear law prohibiting early marriage; in most of the states teenagers of 16 or 17 years of age only need to fill out a parental consent form to have their marriage recognised while younger brides and grooms (14 or 15 years of age) only need to show the written consent of both parents. These early marriages are not necessarily illegal and outlawed according to the norms and standards of their time and societies, and surely the people did/do not necessarily have difficulties accepting such marriages as normal. Rather various examples seem to strongly suggest that there is no place in the world at some time where the practice of the minor’s marriage was wholly abandoned.
The controversy surrounding the alleged marriage of the former governor of Zamfara State, Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima of an Egyptian teenager who is believed to be 13 years old however has to it different interesting dimensions. Senator Yerima is revealed as a veteran for minor marriages. He is reported to have recently divorced a 17 year-old he married only three years ago and there are suggestions that he could have taken undue advantage of the vulnerability of the family of his alleged child bride for whom he is said to have paid the whooping sum of $100,000.00 as dowry – the little bride’s father is reported to have been his driver in Cairo. If all these information are pulled together and proven to be facts, it will be easy to recognise that the marriage can be anything but conscionable and informed nor akin to one contracted between consenting parties. Not surprisingly, very strong opinions are being expressed for and against the actions of the senator.
According to the UN Child Summit Declaration of 1990, the later Declaration of 2002, and the Child Rights Act 2003 the child is the one under 18. Thus in the language of these instruments, any marriage between a young man or a young woman of up to 17 in age are considered to be “early”. When questioned on the issue, the only excuse the senator used to justify his actions is the example of Aisha’s (RA) marriage to the prophet, stating that he has not acted against the Sharia. The senator’s attempt to graft this important historical event on his own peculiar situation and exploit it as a theological explanation is both shameful and flawed. On November 22 2006, ministers, politicians and scholars from almost 50 Muslim states gathered for two days in the Moroccan capital of Rabat for the first Islamic Childhood Conference, and called for amongst other things “measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and all harmful traditional or customary practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation”.
The Al-Azhar Al-Sharif in Egypt, the highest religious body in the (Sunni) Islam, recently released a new manual on the rights of children. The manual states in part; “Marriage in Islam is regulated by certain rules, namely, children must reach puberty and maturity so that they can get married”. In Islam it is certainly possible for a father to get his daughter married to someone who he thinks is suitable for her. However, marrying a young teenager under the somewhat shoddy circumstances surrounding the senator’s wedding is something totally different. To say that these marriages are valid is not to say that he should go ahead and make them. In Muslim law, on attaining puberty and (emotional, psychological, mental) maturity, even in that instance, a marriage only becomes permissible; not mandatory by any interpretation.
The fact that the old practice of child marriage was not of Islam’s creation as shown above, that some great Muslim jurists of the past disapproved it on the authority of the Quran, that the law in many Muslim countries does not allow it, go to show that people considering doing it must weigh their fantasies on the scale of their conscience. But such a weighty matter must not only be left to individual’s conscience, the society should reject the notion that a teenage girl is simply fit for marriage only because she is biologically able to bear children. Using the societal problem of prostitution as an excuse for marrying off young children is all about fixing the mirror, not fixing the reflection Nigerians see in the mirror. Since Senator Yerima swore an oath to uphold the laws of this country, and if his actions violated any aspects of our law, it should be seen that he is held accountable to the law he contested and swore to uphold. This would be the right thing to do.
It leaves much to be desired that a Nigerian senator, not for the first time, is carving out a reputation for himself as targeting vulnerable minors for marriage. It is condemnable when such a trait is found amongst ordinary citizen, but more damaging when someone with the senator’s political office and credentials continues to show utter recklessness and disregard to the safeguards of the practice. Hopefully, this shocking episode will be the Senator’s last and will not become the order of the day amongst our political class who should have the courage to tell Senator Yerima to leave these kids alone to concentrate on their studies.
Lastly, anyone listening to or reading some of the materials coming from the women civil society groups will mistakenly assume that the UN Child Summit Declarations and Child Rights Act 2003 are only about minor marriage while they are not. With so much zeal and great fervour, their protests definitely show how easy it is to get onto the wrong side of a good argument. These protesting mothers should focus their energy and channel their resources on ensuring that children are empowered to resist possible exploitation by adults for marriage or any other exploitative purposes, while lobbying to see that the national laws protecting their overall rights and welfare in the country are strengthened. Too many children in the country do not have access to food and education – a dysfunctional state of being in our country that has forced many into the detestable trade of prostitution (a wrong premise that some are exploiting to support the call for child marriage); fight against the greater evil of the sale of children, child mortality, child prostitution, child pornography, female circumcision, forced exploitative labour and the killing of children on the spurious allegation of witchcraft by charlatans should all be part and parcel of laws and measures that will protect children rights, welfare and give them the education and skills they need to confront any exploitative or cruel situation they confront. These are the battles that require all of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to fight and win on behalf of our children.
• Kamor is Director of Media and Communications, Muslim Public Affairs Centre (MPAC), Nigeria. This article, with slight modifications, was first published on Saturday, May 15, 2010