Early and forced marriages remain an obstacle to women’s progress

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The recent news about a 16-year-old girl from Texas who was tortured by her own parents after she reportedly refused to marry an adult man is nothing short of horrific, disturbing, and un-Islamic.

Nobody's refusal of an unwanted marriage should compel their own parents to pour hot oil on their bodies, beat them with a broomstick or be choked.

Unfortunately, the practice of marrying off teens (or even younger kids) is commonplace in many parts of the world, several of which are predominantly populated by Muslims. Fortunately, it remains extremely rare in the United States.

Authorities in Bexar County in Texas described the brutal incident as the result of the girl refusing to enter into an "arranged" marriage. While this isn't intended to be an exercise in semantics, it's important to note that arranged marriages and early forced marriages — a term which more precisely describes the type of union the parents in Texas were attempting for their daughter — are not interchangeable terms.

Arranged marriages involve the consent of all parties, including the woman. In contrast, early and forced marriages almost always lack the consent of the girl, with the decision of the “wali” — her male guardian — considered sufficient authorization for the marriage.

This practice, right from the get-go, goes against common Islamic teachings. In the holy Quran, Sura 4 contains several verses about the need to have a woman's consent. Also, according to many narrations of Prophet Muhammad, a virgin girl should not be married until she has given permission.

In addition, it is widely understood in Islam that a legitimate marriage is one where both partners have the comprehensive maturity (physical and psychosocial) to understand their rights and responsibilities. In Arabic, this concept is referred to as “rushd,” which means "awareness." Most of these predominantly Muslim countries aren’t ruled by religious leaders, but by dictators. Even so, in many cases, the culture often overrides religious law. Early marriages have more to do with culture than religion.

These forced marriages are prevalent throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Countries with some of the highest rates include Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Niger.

In Niger, for example, a United Nations Demographic and Health Survey found that 57 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are married and not attending school.

Other data revealed that some 50 countries allow marriages to take place before the age of 16. Some 14 million girls under age 18 are getting married each year, the organization states. Islamic Relief USA — a humanitarian organization based in Alexandria, Va. that has worked closely with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — recently participated in a panel discussion at the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to call attention on the causes of early and forced marriages.

In the Texas case, economic necessity can best explain the parents' motivation to get their daughter married. They stood to receive $20,000 from their future son-in-law. The relationship would have been transactional in many senses of the word.

This is not to say that there hasn't been some progress. In the Middle East., U.N. data show that in 1985, 34 percent of the population under the age of 18 were married. By 2010, that had fallen to 18 percent.

Still, there is a long way to go for the world community to help stanch the practice of early and forced marriages. These marriages ultimately deprives young women of their individual rights, cuts off their educations, poses health risks and can relegate them to a second-class status.

The world community must continue to find ways that are culturally sensitive, yet progressive, to provide young girls greater access to education, knowledge about their rights and filling the voids within their communities that can help them become entrepreneurial, independent, and most importantly, feel valued.

Syed M. Hassan

Public affairs, Islamic Relief USA

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