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.
She was barely 12 years old and a student of class-V. I still remember how innocent Shaista looked in her bridal dress,” said Sulaiman while talking about his marriage. He was 17 then, and the couple spent three years together. “She never asked for a single pair of clothes or shoes. She was too afraid to talk to me as I often beat her to teach her manners. Despite my best efforts, she remained stubborn.”
Sulaiman wanted her to be more diligent in getting his shoes polished and clothes pressed. He also wanted his wife to be flirtatious and smiling constantly. “One day I asked her to give me a glass of water and she retorted, ‘what for’? So, I divorced her, despite the fact that we had a beautiful baby boy,” he explained.
Sulaiman, a resident of Akhorwal area of Darra Adam Khel, then married another girl who was 16 years old and was what he calls a ‘better wife’.
Thus, the cycle of child marriages continues in the country.
The victims of these marriages are not just restricted to underage girls. Shah Miran of Darra Adam Khel, now 50 years old and father of six, got married at the age of 12. “My wife was 19 and the daughter of a local influential Malik who was my father’s friend. The two men wanted to cement their bond by means of this marriage,” he recounted, adding that his wife was not very beautiful but was a good mother.
“I was a child and knew nothing about marriage,” he said. Traditions often hold together marriages, according to Miran. Out of Akhorwal’s 25,000-strong population, he has seen only four divorces in the last five decades in his clan.
“I wouldn’t call it child marriage because a 16-year-old boy is a zwan (adult male) and a 14-year-old girl peghala (adult woman),” he said.
In the last one month alone, Miran has attended six underage marriages in his village. He believes it is a successful tradition.
“Young people need companionship of the opposite sex which is natural. We can’t let them be boyfriend and girlfriend like in the West. Therefore it is best to marry them off at an early age so that they can have a legal relationship.”
“In 2012, I came to know about the marriage of an 11-year-old girl Samina in Dagai village of Swabi,” Arif Shah, a local journalist and general secretary of the NGO Samaji Behbood Rabita Council (SBRC), told The Express Tribune. He contacted the then DPO Imran Shahid who directed the concerned SHO to stop the marriage, which they successfully did.
“The family was from Mohmand Agency. The boy’s family had paid Rs10,000 to the girl’s family. Some 80 per cent marriages in this community are child marriages,” he said. They made the families wait till the girl was 16 years old, and till then the boy’s family had to pay Rs500 per month.
“Lack of education, local traditions and large number of children are the main causes of child marriages. But poverty remains the biggest reason.”
In Mattani, every second family has a child bride, creating many social problems.
“My own daughter was married at the age of just 15,” said a local elder, Haji Subhan.
“Now I pay for the medical bills of my daughter and am responsible for most of her expenses,” he said, adding that her husband, himself too young, cannot support his family, and has no decent job as he is mere matriculate.
There is no reliable data available about child marriages, as most of these incidents are not reported to the police. A police official shared that in his 15-year career, he had come across just one reported case of child marriage.
As per the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) 2012-2013, 35 per cent of Pakistani women aged 25-49 are married by age 18 and more than half (54 per cent) are married by age 20. Eight per cent of adolescent women age 15-19 are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. Young motherhood is highest in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) at 10 per cent.
Unicef country statistics (2000-2010) reveal that 24 per cent of the women (aged 20-24) were married before the age of 18 and seven per cent of these women were married before the age of 15.
Shabina Ayaz, resident director of the Aurat Foundation, said that there has been no scientific survey about child marriages in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).
She said it was unfortunate that as per the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, the legal marriage age for a girl was 16 years, and 18 for a boy. “A 16-year-old girl can’t vote, have a bank account or even have an ID card, but she can marry and bear children.”
Already in its 191th meeting, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) declared the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 ‘un-Islamic’. It is also reluctant to pass the Child Marriage Restraint (amended) Bill 2009.
Arshad Mehmood, deputy director of Save the Children, said that there was no penalty for those found guilty of child marriage. “There is only a fine of Rs1,000 and a maximum one-month imprisonment under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929,” he said, adding that the fine was a reasonable amount when the act was introduced but it is hardly sufficient enough today.
A few days ago, the Sindh Assembly set a precedent by passing a law declaring marriage below the age of 18 years punishable by law and a violation of the rights of children, becoming the first province to do so.
Rights experts hope other provinces will follow the example soon (All names have been changed to protect identities.)