In 2008, Nujood Ali’s story got headlines around the world. The ten-year-old girl had escaped from her husband, to whom she had been forcibly married, and went to the courthouse and asked for a divorce. Ali was eventually granted her divorce. However, the court asked Ali to pay compensation to her husband because she was the one initiating the divorce.
Under Islamic law, whoever initiates a divorce carries the consequence. So, if the husband initiates a divorce he cannot take back the dowry and must complete payment of it if he has not paid it in full. If the wife initiates divorce, she must return the dowry to the husband. Unfortunately, the court did not seem to recognize the circumstances of the situation and applied the traditional rules for divorce by asking Nujood to pay. Nujood’s lawyer, though, was able to raise the money.
After her divorce, Ali received fame for her story and was even named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. Ali’s story called attention to the practice of child marriages in Yemen.
Since Ali’s story came to the forefront, the Yemeni Parliament has tried to pass legislation that would raise the legal age of marriage to 17, but has faced opposition from conservative members who say that it violates Islamic law to set an age, with the often cited example of Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad.
Of course this comparison is problematic on a number of levels. First, we are talking about two different times and places. Life expectancy was shorter in 7th century Arabia and so major life events took place earlier. Second, the Prophet Muhammad did not consummate the marriage right away in order to give Ayesha her childhood. Third, even though Ayesha never bore children, by the time her marriage was consummated, the risk that we see now with these child brides would have decreased. Finally and most importantly, what we know about Ayesha indicates that she was an emotionally healthy individual and this could only have happened in a situation that she was comfortable with.
In the case of child brides in Yemen, young girls are being forced into marriages without their consent and often are subjected to violence and rape by their husbands, who many times violate their promise to wait to consummate the marriage until the girl is older. As a result, many times these girls are physically injured, become pregnant, have difficult labor, and sometimes die.
Nujood’s story is unfortunately not unique. Fawziya Ammodi is a 12-year-old married off to a man twice her age, whose baby died after three days of labor. This month, Elham Mahdi, a 13-year-old girl, died of internal bleeding within days of her marriage. All three of these girls’ stories highlight a pressing need to put a stop to this practice, which is against Islam by the mere fact that the girl is coerced into a marriage. Marriage in Islam is a sacred covenant that each party must willingly enter into. The fact that these girls were not willing should be grounds enough to prevent it from happening.
As a Muslim woman, it is frustrating for me that these kinds of practices are continued and Islam is implicated. A central principle of the faith is accountability for actions and this can only happen with choice. Everything should be done to protect these girls and to give them their rights under Islam to choose their spouse and when they are ready for marriage.
Did you hear about Nujood Ali’s story? Do you think it is fair to implicate Islam in child marriages? What should be done to stop this practice? Please share your comments below.