Girl shames cleric on early marriage

Sunday November 16 2008


A Yemen girl made history a week ago. At the same time, she indirectly exposed the folly of the likes of a Muslim cleric in Morrocco. The issue? Child brides.

Ten-year-old Nujood Ali joined nine world-renowned women in New York who received Glamour Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” award.

In Marrakesh, the cleric, Mr Mohamed Ben Sheik Abderrahman Al Maghraoui, remained forlorn. Authorities had reduced him to a shell.

The Women of the Year award pays tribute to women’s major contributions to entertainment, business, sport, fashion, science and politics. The 2008 list includes US Senator Hilary Clinton.

Nujood and Mr Al Maghraoui represent extreme sides on the issue of child brides. Nujood objects. Mr Maghraoui issued a fatwa, an Islamic edict that supposedly legalised the practice.

The girl became a sort of Joan of Arc in May when a Yemen judge annulled her marriage to a man in his 30s. Western media glamorised the story with how she fought alone. A reporter for The Times newspaper got it right. An aunt gave Nujood good advice.

One fact isn’t in dispute. Nujood sat alone early this year on a bench outside Judge Mohamed Alqadhi’s office. When he opened the door, Nujood sought a divorce. “I said,” the judge told The Times, “You are married? I don’t believe it.”

Ms Shada Nasser took up the case pro bono and paid back the bride price. In May, Nujood was free of beatings for failure to complete chores and rape, which is what unwanted sex is.

Undoubtedly having heard of Nujood’s case, Mr Maghraoui, a Sulfist, issued the fatwa in June. He gave a crude rationale. A nine-year-old girl, he said, “has the same sexual capacity as a woman of 20 and over.” Moreover, “girls that age give better benefits than adult women.”

Lawyers, the media, Muslim scholars and the High Council of Ulemas hit back on what they considered legalisation of paedophilia. Authorities shut down Mr Al Maghraoui’s operations, including the website that carried the fatwa.

The two cases aren’t unique. It’s just that they hit the headlines. Unicef says the practice of girls marrying at young age occurs mostly in sub-Sahara Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Accurate figures are hard to come by because the marriages are unregistered.

Nonetheless, efforts to ascertain the number continue. In September, a World Vision report said an estimated 3,500 girls in poor nations marry each day before they turn 15 and another 21,000 before 18. The number of these marriages, the report said, would double to 100 millions in the next decade.

Parents marry off young girls for a variety of reasons, including cultural, religious, social, and economic. Generally, though, poverty and lack of education remain a common denominator.

Opponents of the practice tend to use high-sounding phraseology like “abuse of children’s rights” in condemnation. Simply, child brides suffer complications in pregnancy and delivery. Death hovers. Deliveries tend to be premature. Infant mortality is high and baby weight is low. That’s useless procreation.

Those engaging in child marriages operate on a myth that a girl is ready for marriage, hence childbirth, on menstruation.

Rubbish! Medically, menstruation is just an occurrence in a journey from childhood to adulthood. The journey’s duration varies from individual to individual. Hence, a tendency exists to advocate marriage at a safer age, for example 18.

Evidence exists that those who engage in the practice of child marriages inflict bodily and psychological pain. Unfortunately, international effort to fight the practice isn’t anywhere commensurate to the problem a la the fight against HIV/Aids.

Moreover, the practice is so much of a waste. Asked what she planned to do, Nujood said she would return to school and study to be a lawyer or journalist. Kids have dreams, hopes and goals. Why shatter them?