Let our daughters be

Are our Muslim girls’ futures not worth the effort?

By Leroy Luar

At age 14, the biggest decision I had to make was deciding which new mobile phone model I should be spending my savings on. This is probably true for most teenagers of that age in most parts of this country. Imagine my shock when I read of a mass wedding conducted in downtown Kuala Lumpur last Saturday. The star of the ceremony: a 14 year old bride and her 23 year old school teacher-husband. Local dailies gushed about the blushing bride resplendent in her bridal finery and I found myself wondering what choices the bride was given before deciding on the marriage.

Reaction to their union soon after was swift, with the local dailies following up with recounts of the similarly controversial marriages of an 11-year-old girl’s marriage to a 41-year-old man in Kelantan and a 10-year-old girl’s marriage to a 40-year-old man in Pasir Mas earlier this year. We are further informed that there are some 16,000 married Malaysian girls aged below 15 on current official records.

The marriage also made international news and has since sparked a vociferous debate, online more than anywhere else, against the practice of child marriage in Malaysia. Described as the “world’s single largest act of cruelty,” by Judith Bruce, an associate councilor of the New York-based Population Fund Council (AllAfrica, 12 April 2007), child marriages affect more than 60 million girls worldwide.

More often than not, child brides are pulled out of school, depriving them of an education and meaningful work. They suffer health risks associated with early sexual activity and childbearing, leading to high rates of maternal and child mortality as well as sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. And they are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and social isolation.

Malaysian activists have also spoken up in response to the union. Empower executive director Maria Chin Abdullah said Siti Maryam’s marriage was sending out the wrong message, that it was all right to have child marriages. “We are denying the child the right to live, learn and develop, and forcing them to become adults.” echoing similarly themed comments from Sisters in Islam and other groups.

Though opposition to child marriages at the grassroots level is clearly evident, the silence from the authorities (the Women, Family and Community Develop­ment ministry, foremost amongst others) have been all but deafening. In a statement painfully reminiscent of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil reportedly said “As far as I know, she’s got the consent of the court.”

Nazri Abdul Aziz, minister in the Prime minister’s department who is in charge of legal affairs, echoed the same sentiment, revealing that the government had no intention of reviewing laws allowing for underage marriages because the practice is permitted under Islam. He said, “If the religion allows it, then we can’t legislate against it.”

I find our lawmakers’ behaviour of absolving themselves of this responsibility onto the Syariah court as a matter outside of their jurisdiction to be a little perplexing, if not outright disturbing. For instance, the Moroccan government has reportedly made the boldest reforms in recent years regarding women’s legal rights. In January 2004, it adopted an entirely new Family Law that is both within the framework of Islamic laws with a goal of promoting gender equality, raising the minimum legal age at marriage for Moroccan women from 15 years to 18 years (similar to that for men). Other Islamic countries in the region have since adopted similar laws, all of them also within the framework of Islamic/Syariah laws. This alone should be a convincing indicator to all parties concerned that the protection of women is provided for within Islamic religious laws.

Without venturing too far into unfamiliar territory, I find myself wondering to what standards the Malaysian Syariah court measures itself against as a proponent of moderate Islam alongside their counterparts in arguably more hardline Muslim countries in the Middle East. If the Governments of these countries can summon up the political will to protect their daughters through actual legal reform, why not us? Are our Muslim girls’ futures not worth the effort?

In 17 February 1995, Malaysia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in August 2002, the Child Act was enforced. Can these Acts not be put to use in the protection of our children from under-aged marriage? These and many other questions come to mind when one wonders how sincere our policy makers and law enforcers are in the protection of Malaysian children from this outmoded practice which should no longer have any place in modern civilization.

To Datuk Seri Shahrizat’s credit, she did mention, “It is not our culture in Malaysia to practice child marriage, hence if possible, I hope such cases will not occur again,” That being said, the time for merely wishing and hoping has passed.  Concrete action is needed if we are serious in protecting our daughters from exploitation. We should push with every urgency for the authorities to reconcile with the Syariah court on raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years without any exception, in the interest of child protection with accordance to modern international practices.

The fact is, worldwide society is moving towards banning child marriages altogether. Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir encapsulates this whole issue best in saying “Paedophilia is paedophilia, no matter the garb.” She is right. Enough is enough. Let our daughters be.