Few things are more abundantly attested in Islamic law than the permissibility of child marriage. Islamic tradition records that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was six when Muhammad wedded her and nine when he consummated the marriage:
“The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death)” (Bukhari 7.62.88).
Another tradition has Aisha herself recount the scene:
The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became Allright, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah”s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah”s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age. (Bukhari 5.58.234).
Muhammad was at this time fifty-four years old.
Marrying young girls was not all that unusual for its time, but because in Islam Muhammad is the supreme example of conduct (cf. Qur’an 33:21), he is considered exemplary in this unto today. And so in April 2011, the Bangladesh Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini declared that those trying to pass a law banning child marriage in that country were putting Muhammad in a bad light: “Banning child marriage will cause challenging the marriage of the holy prophet of Islam, [putting] the moral character of the prophet into controversy and challenge.” He added a threat: “Islam permits child marriage and it will not be tolerated if any ruler will ever try to touch this issue in the name of giving more rights to women.” The Mufti said that 200,000 jihadists were ready to sacrifice their lives for any law restricting child marriage.
Likewise the influential website Islamonline.com in December 2010 justified child marriage by invoking not only Muhammad’s example, but the Qur’an as well:
The Noble Qur’an has also mentioned the waiting period [i.e. for a divorced wife to remarry] for the wife who has not yet menstruated, saying: “And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women, if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated” [Qur’an 65:4]. Since this is not negated later, we can take from this verse that it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a prepubescent girl. The Qur’an is not like the books of jurisprudence which mention what the implications of things are, even if they are prohibited. It is true that the prophet entered into a marriage contract with A’isha when she was six years old, however he did not have sex with her until she was nine years old, according to al-Bukhari.
Other countries make Muhammad’s example the basis of their laws regarding the legal marriageable age for girls. Article 1041 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that girls can be engaged before the age of nine, and married at nine: “Marriage before puberty (nine full lunar years for girls) is prohibited. Marriage contracted before reaching puberty with the permission of the guardian is valid provided that the interests of the ward are duly observed.”
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. Khomeini called marriage to a prepubescent girl “a divine blessing,” and advised the faithful to give their own daughters away accordingly: “Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house.” When he took power in Iran, he lowered the legal marriageable age of girls to nine, in accord with Muhammad’s example.
Dubai: Two little girls aged eight and nine celebrated last year a Sana’a court ruling that allowed them to annul their marriages.
A third young girl in the second grade was about to marry a man in his thirties when the civil society groups intervened and stopped the wedding a few months ago in the southern part of the country. Unconfirmed reports said an 8-year-old Yemen girl died after being married to a man in his forties.
Child marriages are rampant in Yemen. A study revealed that the bridal age in more than half of the finalised marriages in Yemen was under the age of 15. According to the study conducted by Sana’a University, only 7 per cent of “husbands” were under the age of 18.
It also added that nearly 65 per cent of females are married “underage,” while that number rises to 70 per cent in rural areas.
Despite efforts to put an end to “this catastrophe”, experts and activists differ on whether setting, by law, a minimum age for marriage will solve the problem. Some say the issue has been receiving considerable attention and growing approval to setting a minimum age for marriage that will be agreed on by the society.
“The issue is related to the country’s culture,” said Yousuf Abu Ras, head of the Yemeni Organisation for economic and social development, one of the NGOs in the country.
For the efforts to change the child marriage to succeed there is a need to change peoples’ perceptions and not just make a legal or legislation amendment, he told Gulf News.
“Any legal amendment will come from above, and it doesn’t reach the roots of the society. The issue (tackle child marriage) needs more awareness and enlightenment efforts, (to succeed)” Abu Ras said.
Even within the same Islamic groups, people differ in their opinion on a minimum age group. There are “religious extremist and traditional” powers that refuse any legal move to set a minimum age for girl, arguing that there is no minimum age for marriage in Islamic law.
“Accordingly, these groups that have popular basis don’t want to lose these bases by supporting the move.”
But other activists believe the light shed on the issue locally and internationally after reporting some cases as boosted the efforts to put an end to the child marriage. It also united more people in their rejection to child brides.
“Until now there is no social opposition, because of the massive damage endured in the past few years on different levels, including social and economic,” said Youssef Abdou, a consultant with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Yemen.
He described numbers of child marriages as “scary” figures, and said they led to a decline in the health indicators of mothers and children in the country, one of the most improvised countries in the world.
With an infant death rate of 51 deaths in early 1,000 live births and a maternal death risk of 200 deaths in every 100,000 live births, infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are high in Yemen.
Abdou noted that child marriages is also related to high illiteracy rates in Yemen and the high number of people living under the poverty line. Many poor families receive some “generous” dowry, while they get rid of an extra member in the family to feed.
Setting a minimum age of marriage of 18 years for girls in Yemen was among the main recommendations of national dialogue held in Yemen as part of the Gulf initiative to end the tension in the country after people took to the streets to demand change.
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to the initiative, handed over the power to his deputy, Abed Rabou Mansour Hadi, and a national dialogue was held.
And even if it is approved, the law of minimum age needs nearly two years to come into effect, experts and activists said.
Until then, Yemen and Saudi Arabic [sic] remain to be the only two Arab countries that don’t have a minimum age for marriage.