The Iranian decision to allow nine-year-old girls the legal opportunity to be married to fully grown men was announced by Mohammad Ali Isfenani, chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee.
Isfenani called Iran’s current civil legislation, which sets the minimum legal age of marriage for girls at 13-years-old, “un-Islamic and illegal,” saying, “We must regard nine as being the appropriate age for a girl to have reached puberty and qualified to get married. To do otherwise would be to contradict and challenge Islamic Sharia law.”
Isenfani’s clarion call for prepubescent marriage comes at the same moment a new report from the Union for the Protection of Children’s Rights (UPCR) found 75 Iranian girls less than 10-years-old were forced to marry in the past two months, part of a sharp rise in the overall number of Iranian child brides under the age of 10.
According to UPCR, of the 342,000 Iranian marriages among girls under 18-years-old registered in 2010, at least 713 marriages involved girls under 10-years-old, more than twice as many as were registered in the prior three years. Moreover, of these underage marriages, 42,000 involved girls between the ages of 10 to 14.
The Iranian appetite for child brides led Farshid Yezdani, an activist with UPCR, to note, “It is a worrying trend to see and something that we are all working hard to end. The best way to end this kind of practice is to give information on how to better one’s life without infringing on a child’s ability to have a childhood.”
Tragically, a lost childhood is not just the providence of Iranian girls but rather for a distressingly large and ever-expanding number of little girls worldwide. To that end, there are now more than 50 million child brides, a number that is growing by 10 million each year and which is expected to reach 100 million young victims over the next decade.
These unfortunate children are married off for a bevy of cultural and religious reasons, ranging from ensuring familial alliances to economic necessities, such as settling debts or overcoming natural disasters to ensure a family’s survival.
In that latter example, drought-stricken Africa has witnessed the emergence of so-called “drought brides” who are being sold for as little as $170. As one NGO worker explained, “Some households have 10 children and feeding those children is really hard,” so marrying off one young girl ensures “that the rest of the family does not die from lack of food.”
While the reasons behind these human transactions may vary, the one commonality is that the younger the girl, the better the deal. Specifically, it is important that these girls be sold off at a young enough age to better ensure their virginity, thus increasing their economic value and protecting the honor of their families.
Not surprisingly, once handed-off, these child brides are then consigned to a terrifyingly nasty, brutish and short-lived existence at the hands of men who ostensibly should be looking out for their well-being and not using them as sexual toys for their own perverse enjoyment.
For starters, these young brides rarely continue their education, denying them any hope of independence, the ability to earn a livelihood or of making an economic contribution to their households, thus condemning them to a grim life of ignorance and poverty.
Moreover, the life expectancy of their frightful existence is likely to be cut exceedingly short given the multitude of health risks inherent in being a child bride, not the least of which is the high mortality rate from childbirth injuries, where an estimated 70,000 girls under 15 die each year from complications during pregnancy or childbirth.
Yet, while the phenomenon of child marriage may have a global span, most of these child marriages take place in predominantly Islamic countries spread throughout the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
The deeply rooted Islamic attachment to prepubescent marriage finds religious justification in the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year-old child bride, a marriage consummated when she was nine-years-old, following her first menstruation.
In fact, determining when a girl reaches her first menstruation is the threshold by which Islamic religious leaders and scholars determine the basis for what age is proper for a girl to be married off; some believe this begins by or before age 10, while others think by the age of 15.
As such, the need to adhere to these Sharia-based marital guidelines has made governments in completely or even predominately Muslim countries reluctant to ban underage marriages.
In predominantly Muslim Malaysia, for example, the Minister of Legal Affairs has said girls below the age of 16 are allowed to marry as long as they obtain the permission of the religious courts, arguing, “If the religion allows it, then we can’t legislate against it. Islam allows it as long as the girl is considered to have reached her pubescent stage, once she has her menstruation.”
Yet, even in Muslim countries where child marriage is illegal, Islamists often simply ignore the law, allowing for religious leaders to approve “informal marriages” for underage girls, marriages which allow spouses to live in the same home and have children, but which is only legally registered once she turns 18.
While most would find it hard to believe that a 15-year-old-girl, let alone a nine-year-old girl, is physically or emotionally ready to start engaging in sexual activity and carrying a child, others think that girls barely removed from the womb are more than fully capable of handling those activities.
That enlightened attitude was on display in January when one of Saudi Arabia’s most influential clerics, Sheik Saleh al-Fawzan, issued a fatwa allowing fathers to arrange marriages for their daughters “even if they are in the cradle.”
However, lest anyone think a man would actually engage in sex with such a young infant, al-Fawzan was quick to add that it wasn’t “permissible for their husbands to have sex with them unless they are capable of being placed beneath and bearing the weight of the men.”
Given that, it’s not surprising that many believe that underage marriage is little more than legally permissible and religiously sanctioned pedophilia. Yet, some defenders of the horrid practice argue that critics have no moral or ethical qualms about child marriage but are instead driven by less than pure concerns.
One such person is Yemeni Sheik Mohammed Hamzi, an imam and official of the Islamist Yemeni opposition party, Islaah. Hamzi had been asked his opinion in reaction to international complaints to the death of a 13-year-old Yemeni child bride who bled to death after being tied down and forced to have sex with her 23-year-old husband.
Hamzi simply ascribed their dissatisfaction due to the fact that “No one wants to marry these women’s-rights activists anyway. They’re just depressed and jealous that they are not married.”
Tragically, there’s no such shortage of marital suitors for the ten million little girls set in the coming year to join the ranks of the world’s burgeoning child bride community, a sisterhood that grows increasingly younger with each passing year.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.