“To call anyone who tries to help them [child-brides forced into marriage] ‘Islamopohobic’ is an obscene betrayal of these young women”
And yet that’s exactly what they will call you. “The rebellion of the child-brides,” by Johann Hari, for theÂ Independent, August 14
Late last year, a tiny littleÂ ten year old girlÂ turned up alone at the court in Sana, Yemen, and declared: “I have come to get a divorce.” This hadn’t happened before. According to the Yemen Times, in some parts of the country the average marriage age is ten, and some 50 percent of marriages are to underage girls. But Nujood Ali was unique in escaping to a court door, pleading for help.Â
Nujood explained how her father had married her off to a thirtysomething motorcycle courier. On their wedding night, he ordered her to share a bed with him. She ran out of the room, soÂ he dragged her back and raped her.
At first she was ashamed. “But I passed through that,” she said recently. “All I want now is to finish my education. I want to be a lawyer… I want to defend oppressed people. I want to be an example for all the other girls.” After saying this, she ran off to play hide-and-seek.
The court eventually dissolved the marriage â€“ and awarded compensation to her husband in apology. But Nujood has spearheaded a national revulsion against child-marriage. The conservative Islamic mullahs have reacted by saying there is nothing wrong with child-marriage â€“ because Mohammed did it. I discuss this in my column today. It is true Mohammed did this.Â If you are trapped in the fundamentalist mindset of Mohammed-is-our-moral-exemplar, you have no way to answer back. The debate is resolved; Nujood’s “husband” was in the right.
To get out of this bind, you need to leave behind a fundamentalist reading of Islam. You need to accept that parts of it are metaphor â€“ or, better still, abandon supernatural explanations for life altogether.
Though what sort of “metaphor” — or, better yet, “supernatural explanation” — could Muhammad’s marriage to a she-child possibly be? NothingÂ metaphysicalÂ about that; purelyphysical, literally.
This is far from confined to Yemen. The excellent reporter Amelia Hill discovered thatÂ child marriages are happening here in Britain too. She met a young Muslim woman who at the age of fourteen was forced to marry her cousin in an unofficial “community ceremony.” She explained: “They kept whispering in my ear to ask why I wasn’t smiling. I told them I was terrified and desperate, that I was just a child and far too young to get married. I pleaded with them to help me escape, but no-one saw anything wrong in what was happening.Â I begged my husband not to marry me, but he told me I had no choice.” She was raped that night. “It was disgusting, awful.Â I used to scream and cry all night. I was too young, too tender inside. It killed me inside. Life became meaningless… I had my childhood taken away and missed out on all my teenage years. Sometimes I still wonder if it’s worth trying to have a future. Many days, I’m not at all sure it is.”Â After two suicide attempts, she managed to escape, and when Hill found her she was living, alone, in a refuge.Â
Peter Cripps, head of the Community Safety Unit at my local police station in Shoreditch, told HillÂ these forced child-marriages “are happening and numbers are growing.” Nobody is trying to figure out how many Muslim girls are suffering this way.
To call anyone who tries to help them “Islamopohobic” is an obscene betrayal of these young women. Some of the bravest critics of this barbarism are in fact British Muslim women: they staff and run a series of brilliant domestic violence refuges. But the fundamentalist literalist reading of Islam chokes their efforts. It will always tell the girls that child-marriage is acceptable, because Mohammed did it. If we can’t criticize and reinterpret Mohammed without being threatened, then we may be unable â€“ in the end â€“ to cut away the intellectual justification for abusing these girls.