Marrying Children: A Pakistani Right?

This is an important news story, highlighting efforts by progressive lawmakers and politicians to end child marriage in Pakistan: Pakistan passes bill to end child marriage amid anger from religious parties – The National

Efforts to pass a nationwide law raising the legal age of marriage of all Pakistani citizens – not just men – to 18 have usually been met with stiff opposition from religious parties. Two previous bills were tabled by Senator Sehar Kamran in 2017 and MNAs Marvi Memon and Dr. Attiya Inayatullah in the National Assembly in 2010. Those bills failed; only the province of Sindh has been able to make it illegal for a girl under 18 to be married, thanks to efforts of the PPP, which in this aspect remains one of the most progressive political parties in the country. Still, implementation remains a major challenge, while every other province in Pakistan has rejected similar measures.

These bills have always been defeated by religious parties who claim restricting marriage is against Islam. Our religion does not define any set minimum age for marriage; it only requires that people be of age physically, emotionally and mentally. No surprise that religious clerics (and many conservative Pakistanis) only choose to look at the physical aspect of maturity; they cruelly argue that as soon as a girl begins to menstruate she is ready for marriage. They completely ignore the scientific evidence that shows how early pregnancy is a complete disaster for a teenage girl’s health. They also ignore the statistics that show how Pakistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality because of early pregnancy. They cling to a medieval vision of Islam rather than opting for a modern, progressive version that could propel this nation into the 21st century.

Even though this has been done in other Muslim countries — the Saudi Shura has set the age of puberty at 18; Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the major seat of Sunni Islamic scholarship, has passed a similar fatwa; in the UAE, Turkey and Oman, Morocco and Bangladesh it is illegal for a girl to be married before 18 — our religious scholars wish to go against the grain and cling on to their desire that a girl should be ripe and ready for marriage even if she is as young as 8. I do not think their interest is in allowing a 60 year old woman to marry a 16 year old boy, but that could just be the cynic in me.

There is another element to why the bill continues to be defeated, and it is related to political rivalry in Pakistan. If a senator or legislator from one party raises the bill, members of rival parties will try to sink it. In the case of this bill, the House Committee, which comprised of members of various parties including the PPP, PML-N and PTI, approved the bill, but when it came to the entire Senate, the ruling party PTI (Imran Khan’s party) abstained from voting, while the two major religious parties JUI and JI opposed the bill and said it should be sent back to the Council of Islamic Ideology, which is an advisory body with a great deal of influence over Pakistani lawmaking.

Even in the past, when PML-N Senator Sehr Kamran moved her bill in the National Assembly in 2017, the standing committee headed by PPP’s Senator Rehman Malik was the one to strike the bill down and declare it against Islamic injunctions. This is not a clear-cut issue of men versus women: female members of the religious parties have in the past opposed bills banning child marriage; women will betray each other for a share of power, it seems. Nor are these tactics restricted to child marriage: religious parties oppose any idea of family planning, even though Pakistan is facing a population bomb of immense proportions. But so do nationalists, who want a huge population in order to show strength as a nation.

This current bill must now go to the National Assembly, where it will be met with much opposition. Even the PML-N, which touts women’s empowerment as one of its key principles, is divided on the issue of whether or not girls should be stopped from getting married before the age of 18. One wonders whether the opponents of the bill — the rich and elite politicians of our country — are eager to get their 12 and 13 year old daughters married to 30 and 40 year old men, or whether this is just something they reserve for the most poor, deprived, and uneducated people of Pakistan.

As Pakistanis, we have an outdated idea of protecting girls. Many people among the lower socio-economic classes, especially during times of war and conflict, believe that the best way to protect their daughters from the vicissitudes of the world is to get them married off quickly. We must abandon this concept and realize that in today’s world, protecting our daughters means allowing them to complete their education and their childhood in peace and tranquility. We must also move away from the idea that girls’ parents can take any decision he or she pleases, even if it is an oppressive one that infringes on a child’s human rights, because as a parent she or he possesses complete authority over a girl’s life. This is the same kind of thinking that leads to child labor, child trafficking, and honor killing.

A 2017 World Bank study found that ending child marriage could result in a $6229 million rise in earnings and productivity. Imagine what this could do for our future as a nation. But that should not be our main impetus for banning child marriage. Our girls’ lives matter more than money. Just ask the girls of Pakistan whether they would like to get married at the age of 14, or be allowed to continue to study. In all the brouhaha over child marriage, why have none of these politicians, lawmakers and clerics asked the girls what they want to do with their lives?