The marriage age debate

May 16, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE new debate over the minimum marriage age for girls has revealed a massive regression in our society’s social thinking and the implications are truly alarming.

Ninety years ago, a Hindu member of the Central Assembly of India moved a bill to fix the minimum age for the marriage of girls belonging to his community, so that the evil of child marriage could be tackled. Mohammad Ali Jinnah insisted on extending the protection of the proposed measure to Muslim girls, too. Many Muslim members of the assembly opposed him, but no member from any religious community challenged his right to have his say.

Recently, Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a non-Muslim member of the ruling party, moved a bill to raise the marriage age for girls to 18 years. A Muslim minister not only disagreed with him, but also challenged his right to move the bill, implying thereby that Vankwani’s belief debarred him from raising a matter that could affect Muslim girls. Retrogressive thinking of this order has not been witnessed in our legislative history — neither before Independence, nor after it.

The Quaid-i-Azam spoke twice on marriage laws in the Central Assembly of India. In the first instance, he supported the Hindu Marriage Bill that allowed inter-caste marriages and declared: “I am as much interested in coming to the rescue of the Hindu minority ... as anybody else would be interested in coming to the rescue of a Musalman minority, if it was suffering.”

It is worth recalling Quaid-i-Azam’s position on the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 once more.

The second occasion was his intervention in the debate on the bill that sought to prevent child marriage in the Hindu community.

The Quaid’s success in making the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 applicable to Muslim girls, too, has been frequently referred to in public debate, but it is worth recalling once more.

A large number of ulema opposed the Quaid’s initiative, while Maulana Shibli Nomani alone was conspicuous in supporting him. When he was asked to resign his seat in the assembly, he declared that only the Bombay Muslims who had elected him had the right to recall him.

During the debate on the Sarda Bill, as it was named after the mover, he made the following points:

— Child marriage was a social evil and he was horrified to learn of its prevalence among Muslims.

— He had learnt during 30 years of his law practice that marriage was a civil contract pure and simple, and that it had nothing to do with religion.

— There was no Islamic text that obliged Mus­lims to marry off their daughters before they reached the age of 14.

Since the bill was opposed by the orthodox Hindus as well, the fact that its supporters included Hindu and Muslim members of the assembly was welcomed by the Quaid as a sign of unity that was needed to win freedom from alien rule.

However, in today’s Pakistan, the authorities appear determined to make the Quaid more and more irrelevant. The efforts made by Ziaul Haq to downgrade his status in the national pantheon have not been reversed by any of the regimes that have succeeded him. But the case for raising a bar to child marriage can be argued without upsetting anyone by recalling the Quaid’s views.

The whole world has become aware of the evil that child marriage is. Pakistan is among the worst-affected countries. According to a media report, 21 per cent of the girls are married before the age of 18 and 3pc before the age of 15. The havoc this evil practice causes in societies that allow it is no secret.

A child bride is often a victim of marital rape. She is made to assume reproductive functions before she can properly understand them. She becomes a mother before she can learn to discharge the responsibilities of motherhood. Frequent child births lead to a high rate of maternal deaths and the birth of babies who are too weak to survive, as noticed in Thar, for example. Thus, on the one hand, child marriages cause wastage and loss of women’s lives; and on the other, they result in a high rate of infant mortality and raising of underdeveloped children. Both damage on a scale that no country can afford.

Many countries have improved the standards of living of women and children and also improved their rate of economic progress by enabling families to raise the girls’ marriage age. The example closest to us is Bangladesh’s. A number of Muslim states including Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, and the United Arab Emirates have fixed 18 years or more as the minimum marriageable age for girls. How do Pakistani ulema view the interpretation of religious injunctions in these countries? Sindh raised the marriage age for girls to 18 quite some time ago. Aren’t the heavens still in place in the province?

Finally, fixing the girls’ minimum age for marriage is not a new ‘conspiracy’. The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 has been in force throughout the 72 years of independence. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 had a provision about girls’ marriageable age for two decades, till it was arbitrarily removed by Gen Zia.

A silver lining is the decision of a few PTI leaders to deny support to their more reactionary wing. The ruling party does not have much time to avoid reaching a consensus on the issue. One should like to hope that they will be able to disabuse the minds of some of their misguided members. But if they continue to dither on this issue, they will deepen the impression that the present government is going to yield to the obscurantist elements to a greater extent than its predecessors. That is bound to entail indescribable difficulties and hardships to the country’s women and members of minority communities, in addition to strengthening the hands of an anachronistic orthodoxy.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2019