In reality, 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.”
According to Amir Taheri in The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution (pp. 90-91), 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.
“Nigeria: Child brides facing death sentences a decade after child marriage prohibited,” by Joe Sandler Clarke, the Guardian, March 11, 2015:
Maimuna Abdulmunini was just 13 when she was arrested for burning her 35-year-old husband to death.
The legal process dragged out over five years. Finally in 2012, when she turned 18, Abdulmunini was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Today, despite a court ruling six months ago that the sentence is a violation of her rights, she is still on death row, waiting.
Wasila Tasi’u is 14 but has been in a prison in Gezawa, outside the city of Kano, for the last five months. She too faces the death penalty for allegedly murdering her 35-year-old husband, Umar Sani, and three others at her own wedding party.
Soon after she was arrested, Tasi’u told her lawyer Hussaina Ibrahim that she had been tied to the bed and raped by Sani on their wedding night. When she appeared in Gezawa high court for the first time back in the autumn, she could barely say her own name, turning her back to the court when the charges were read, breaking down in tears.
Her trial resumes today. A strike by judicial staff, coupled with the customary delays in the Nigerian legal system, has meant that she has been incarcerated since October, with limited access to her mother and father. Tasi’u is struggling to cope with her current situation, according to Ibrahim. Once described as a “jovial” and “intelligent” teenager, Tasi’u is now withdrawn and scared.
The Nigerian government made child marriage illegal in 2003, but according to campaigners from Girls Not Brides, 39% of girls in the country are still married before the age of 15. In the Muslim-dominated northwest, 48% of girls are married by the age of 15 and 78% are married by the time they hit 18. In Kibbe state, the average age of marriage for girls is just 11.
The Child Rights Act, which raises the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18, was introduced in 2003. But the legislation, which was created at a federal level, is only effective if it is passed by state governments. To date, only 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states have passed the act. The legislation is yet to be passed in either Abdulmunini or Tasiu’s home states.
Within Nigerian politics the issue has proved controversial, not least because politicians have a habit of marrying teenagers. Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima, representative for Zamfara West in northern Nigeria, made headlines back in 2010 when he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl. Three years later he persuaded his fellow Senators to defeat a motion that would have removed a constitutional loophole that means girls under the age of 18 are considered adults as soon as they get married.
Now, with less than three weeks to go before the country goes to polls in the presidential election, the issue has taken on a political edge. Ibrahim says the government doesn’t care about the girls forced into marriage, claiming that politicians could have Tasi’u released if they really wanted to.
A senior lawyer at the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Kano, Ibrahim is currently dealing with 54 cases related to child marriage, including a 12-year-old charged with attempted murder and an 11-year-old who attempted suicide and ran away from home a week before she was due to marry a 45-year-old.
Ibrahim starts her working day at three in the morning, before prayers and taking her children to school. As a woman in a high-powered job, she faces regular harassment from opponents, as well as the general sexism that punctuates her dealings with state officials and members of the police force.
“I am frustrated. There is a real problem with access to education in this region. The government could take steps to address this, but it is yet to do so. Better access to education could have a real impact on child marriage. It’s easy to get the sense that those in charge in the south don’t care about the people of the north. The election has been so focused on terrorism and Boko Haram that other issues are being lost,” she says.
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer based in northern Nigeria, who “grew up watching girls being married off all around” her, suggests that politicians in the north of the country are reluctant to come out against child marriage for fear of losing popular support. “Many of our northern politicians seem to think that taking a stand against pegging the minimum age for marriage would be synonymous with taking a stand against the Muslim faith. The religion has been misinterpreted to convey that child marriage is encouraged in Islam, whereas contextual interpretations would suggest the opposite,” she says.
“Child marriage is prevalent in many of the communities where poverty is endemic. Parents (and fathers especially) actually benefit from the dowry and extras that their daughter’s suitor contributes to the family of the girl child.”