CNN reported this week that "a 12-year-old Yemeni girl, who was forced into marriage, died during a painful childbirth that also killed her baby." It was a horrific story -- but in the Islamic world, not an unusual one.
In Yemen in 2008, an eight-year-old girl, Nojoud Mohammed Nasser, was granted a divorce from her thirty-year-old husband in a high-profile case. GulfNews reported at the time that Nojoud was joyful when she was granted her divorce: "I am so happy to be free and I will go back to school and will never think of getting married again," she said. "It is a good feeling to be rid of my husband and his bad treatment."
But what was unusual about her case was not her age -- it was the fact that she was able to get out of her marriage. GulfNews continued: "According to the International Centre for Research on Women's 2007 statistics, Yemen is one of 20 developing countries where child marriages are common. Nearly half of all Yemeni girls are married before the age of 18."
This is because of the example of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, whom the Koran (33:21) calls the "excellent example" of conduct for Muslims. Muhammad himself notoriously had a child bride. According to Sahih Bukhari, the hadith collection that Muslims consider most reliable, Islamic tradition, "the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death)." Another tradition recalls that at the age of nine, she was playing on a swing with some of her friends when Muhammad came for her.
The Koran takes child marriage for granted in its directives about divorce. Discussing the waiting period required in order to determine if the woman is pregnant, it says: "If you are in doubt concerning those of your wives who have ceased menstruating, know that their waiting period shall be three months. The same shall apply to those who have not yet menstruated" (65:4, emphasis added). Allah thus gives directives for a situation in which a pre-pubescent woman is not only married, but is being divorced by her husband.
This behavior by the man whom hundreds of millions of people regard as the exemplary standard of conduct has brought suffering to untold numbers of women and girls.
One Islamic land where child marriage is common -- in fact, more common than anywhere else in the world -- is northern Nigeria, where Sharia is in force. The Nigerian government has tried to act against the practice, passing a law in 2003, the Child Rights Act, that set the minimum age for marriage at eighteen. Islamic clerics have been the fiercest opponents of this law: Imam Sani, a Nigerian cleric, explained: "Child marriage in Islam is permissible. In the Koran there is no specific age of marriage." Consequently, "the Muslim clerics have a problem with this Child Rights Act and they decried it, they castigate it, they reject it and they don't want it introduced in Nigeria." If the government imposed the law, Sani said, "There will be violent conflict from the Muslims, saying that 'no, we will not accept this, we'd rather die than accept something which is not a law from Allah.'"
Nigeria is made up of 36 states, of which 18 have passed the Child Rights Act; however, only one majority-Muslim Nigerian state has passed the law, and that with a change that set "puberty," rather than the age of eighteen, as the minimum requirement for lawful marriage. The result? As many as 800,000 Nigerian women are afflicted with fistula, a disease resulting from early intercourse and pregnancy.
Nigeria is not alone, either in the prevalence of child marriage there or in attempts at reform the practice. In September 2008, Moroccan officials closed 60 Koranic schools operated by Sheikh Mohamed Ben Abderrahman Al-Maghraoui -- because he issued a decree stating that marriage to girls as young as nine was justified by Muhammad's example. "The sheikh," according to Agence France-Presse, "said his decree was based on the fact that the Prophet Mohammed consummated his marriage to his favourite wife when she was that age."
It should come as no surprise, then, given the words of the Koran about divorcing prepubescent women and Muhammad's example in marrying Aisha, that in some areas of the Islamic world the practice of child marriage enjoys the blessing of the law. Time magazine reported in 2001 that "in Iran the legal age for marriage is nine for girls, fourteen for boys," and notes that "the law has occasionally been exploited by pedophiles, who marry poor young girls from the provinces, use and then abandon them. In 2000 the Iranian Parliament voted to raise the minimum age for girls to fourteen, but this year, a legislative oversight body dominated by traditional clerics vetoed the move." The New York Times reported in 2008 that in Yemen, "despite a rising tide of outrage, the fight against the practice is not easy. Hard-line Islamic conservatives, whose influence has grown enormously in the past two decades, defend it, pointing to the Prophet Muhammad's marriage to a 9-year-old." (The Times doesn't seem fazed by the fact that "conservatives" in the U.S. are not generally advocates of child marriage.)
And so child marriage remains prevalent in many areas of the Islamic world. In 2007, photographer Stephanie Sinclair won the UNICEF Photo of the Year competition for a wedding photograph of an Afghani couple: the groom was said to be 40 years old but looked older; the bride was eleven. UNICEF Patroness Eva Luise Köhler explained: "The UNICEF Photo of the Year 2007 raises awareness about a worldwide problem. Millions of girls are married while they are still under age. Most of theses child brides are forever denied a self-determined life." According to UNICEF, about half of the women in Afghanistan are married before they reach the age of eighteen.
It's a human rights abuse of massive proportions. Yet once again, Western feminists are silent. Their indifference indicates that their real agenda is not women's rights at all, but the pursuit of raw political power in Western societies. Meanwhile, their "sisters" in the Islamic world suffer on, with no one to speak for them.
By Robert Spencer