In Yemen last month, Arab feminists, liberals and human-rights activists scored a victory against Islamic gender apartheid.
After several failed attempts, that Muslim country’s parliament passed a law in February setting the legal age of marriage at 17. According to the new legislation, anyone who marries under this age, or who marries off a girl younger than 17, will be fined or spend a year in prison. “We must not allow political agendas to compromise women’s and children’s rights,” said a member of Yemen’s Women’s National Committee, which pushed for the bill.
Prior to this legislation, there was no age limit for matrimony in Yemen. Half of the country’s brides, according to a 2006 field study, were married before age 18, often to men many years older. Only about seven percent of boys were minors when married. In religiously conservative parts of the country, including Hadramout, where Osama bin Laden’s family originates, the average matrimonial age for girls is between eight and ten years old.
The drive to establish a legal minimum age for marriage in Yemen received a strong boost last year when one child bride, an eight-year old girl, successfully filed for divorce from her 30-year old husband. Nujood Ali ran away from her husband of two months because she could no longer stand the physical abuse and unwanted sexual encounters.
The international attention given to the Nujood case tarnished Yemen’s image abroad, putting the government on the defensive. It also provided “an excellent opportunity” for Yemen’s women’s groups and their allies to push for the age limit legislation.
However, it was not only Nujood’s divorce, and several others like hers that garnered national attention in Yemen, that helped lead to the bill’s passing. Educated society in the Middle Eastern country is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of child marriages, especially for girls. Sixty-one Yemeni MPs, for example, were part of a Safe Motherhood project that dealt with this issue, among others affecting women and children.
And these dangers, psychological, social and physical, are not minor. After marriage, sometimes forced, women are expected to have a baby about once every two years. Women in Yemen average about six children over a lifetime.
And since many girls start having babies at age 13, both the maternal and child mortality rates in Yemen are among the highest in the world, as the young brides’ bodies are too underdeveloped to withstand the rigors of labor. The Yemen Times has reported that 365 out of every 100,000 women die in child birth. Other child brides suffer sexual molestation, beatings, and abuse from in-laws that leave them severely traumatized. “There are hundreds of Nujoods who have been subjected to sexual abuse by mature men,” said Shatha Mohammed Nasser, Nujood Ali’s lawyer.
There is also a dawning awareness among developing countries like Yemen that their future prosperity depends on educating and giving women equal rights comparable to those in Western countries. One Yemenite aptly compared his country, with its lack of women’s participation and contribution, to a man standing on one leg. It will always be weak and unbalanced, never civilized and developed. Indeed, UNICEF has called early marriage one of Yemen’s “biggest development challenges.”
Prior attempts to establish a legal minimum age for matrimony in Yemen had failed because the parliament’s jurisprudence committee proclaimed a minimum age for marriage is not defined in Islam. The previous law held that girls could not marry until they were ready for sexual intercourse. Critics, however, say this way of judging marital readiness was not measurable and was open for abuse.
The jurisprudence committee ensures that all laws passed in Yemen’s parliament are in keeping with the tenets of Sharia law, which is Yemen’s legal code. Last month’s groundbreaking legislation is currently before the same committee for review. Not unexpectedly, Islamic members of parliament are demanding the law be cancelled and that a new debate and vote be held.
The Islamic MPs are supported by some of Yemen’s imams who, like the MPs, want either no age limit, or one set at nine years, since that was the age of Aisha, the youngest bride of the prophet Mohammad, when he married her. Some, however, are willing to accept 15, since that, they believe, was the age of Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima, when he married her off.
In a welcome development, these clerics are being urged to modernize their thinking. “If it is proved that the Prophet got married to Aisha at nine years old and Khadeejat at 40, then it does not mean that Muslims must marry at this age or that age; that was left for the circumstances of society?” asked one social worker. “The Prophet did not use planes or cars in his travelling. Does that mean we should not use planes or cars because he did not use them?”
This struggle to grant women equal rights has rightly been called the battle for the “heart of Islam.” In Yemen, many will still ignore the new law. Due to customs, culture and religion, the practice of child brides will continue for some time to come. Nevertheless, the law’s passing in such a conservative Islamic country is a remarkable achievement and a positive step in the direction of human rights – especially for young women who, like Nujood Ali, will be freed at last from the bondage of forced marriage.