And what is to stop this from happening? It has broad sanction in Islam, as few things are more abundantly attested in Islamic law than the permissibility of child marriage. Islamic tradition records that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was six when Muhammad wedded her and nine when he consummated the marriage:
“The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death)” (Bukhari 7.62.88).
Another tradition has Aisha herself recount the scene:
The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became Allright, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age. (Bukhari 5.58.234).
Muhammad was at this time fifty-four years old.
Marrying young girls was not all that unusual for its time, but because in Islam Muhammad is the supreme example of conduct (cf. Qur’an 33:21), he is considered exemplary in this unto today. And so in April 2011, the Bangladesh Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini declared that those trying to pass a law banning child marriage in that country were putting Muhammad in a bad light: “Banning child marriage will cause challenging the marriage of the holy prophet of Islam… [putting] the moral character of the prophet into controversy and challenge.” He added a threat: “Islam permits child marriage and it will not be tolerated if any ruler will ever try to touch this issue in the name of giving more rights to women.” The Mufti said that 200,000 jihadists were ready to sacrifice their lives for any law restricting child marriage.
Likewise the influential website Islamonline.com in December 2010 justified child marriage by invoking not only Muhammad’s example, but the Qur’an as well:
The Noble Qur’an has also mentioned the waiting period [i.e. for a divorced wife to remarry] for the wife who has not yet menstruated, saying: “And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women—if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated” [Qur’an 65:4]. Since this is not negated later, we can take from this verse that it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a prepubescent girl. The Qur’an is not like the books of jurisprudence which mention what the implications of things are, even if they are prohibited. It is true that the prophet entered into a marriage contract with A’isha when she was six years old, however he did not have sex with her until she was nine years old, according to al-Bukhari.
Other countries make Muhammad’s example the basis of their laws regarding the legal marriageable age for girls. Article 1041 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that girls can be engaged before the age of nine, and married at nine: “Marriage before puberty (nine full lunar years for girls) is prohibited. Marriage contracted before reaching puberty with the permission of the guardian is valid provided that the interests of the ward are duly observed.”
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. Khomeini called marriage to a prepubescent girl “a divine blessing,” and advised the faithful to give their own daughters away accordingly: “Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house.” When he took power in Iran, he lowered the legal marriageable age of girls to nine, in accord with Muhammad’s example.
“Rights group: Law failing to protect child brides,” by Aya Batrawy for the Associated Press, January 19 (thanks to Kenneth):
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Cultural traditions and a lack of legal protections are driving tens of millions of girls around the world into early marriage, subjecting them to violence, poverty and mistreatment, an international human rights group says.
Equality Now, citing the United Nations Population Fund, said in a report issued over the weekend that more than 140 million girls over the next decade will be married before they turn 18.
“When a young girl is married and gives birth, the vicious cycle of poverty, poor health, curtailed education, violence, instability, disregard for rule of law … continues into the next generation, especially for any daughters she may have,” the report said.
The 32-page report found that despite laws that set a minimum age for marriage in many countries, social norms continue to provide a veneer of legitimacy to child marriage in remote villages and even in developed countries. Child marriage is defined as a marriage before age 18.
“Child marriage legitimizes human rights violations and abuses of girls under the guise of culture, honor, tradition and religion,” the report said.
The report gave examples of cases in countries such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Guatemala, India, Jordan, Kenya, Malawi and Mali.
Often when child brides are married off to older men, it is to restore or maintain family honor, or to settle a father’s debts or obtain some other financial gain. A girl married off is seen as one less mouth to feed, and the wedding dowry is spent by her family to support itself.
Yemeni school students hold up posters denouncing child marriage, as they take part in a protest outside the parliament in Sanaa, Yemen, March 2010.
In some countries, families encourage early marriage to protect young girls from premarital sex and to uphold a family’s honor, according to the report.
In one case, a young girl named Mariam was born in France to parents from Mali. She had never been to Mali until her father sent her at age 14 and her sister at 16 to a village while they were on vacation from school.
When they arrived, their father took their passports, and Mariam was told to marry her father’s cousin. Her sister was to marry the local imam, or preacher. Mariam eventually escaped with the help of a policeman she met during a visit to the village market, but her sister remains in Mali, the report said.
Equality Now said it uses pseudonyms for girls for their safety.
In another case in Afghanistan, a 3-year-old girl’s father killed a man. To avoid prison, he handed his daughter over to the victim’s family, which regularly beat her and forced her to do household chores. At 10 she was raped by an older man in the family, and that same year she was married to a teenager from the family.
Her husband divorced her when she was 12, and she was forced to marry the uncle who had raped her. It was not until she managed to run away that police helped her find shelter with a women’s organization. The uncle was arrested and is serving a 13-year sentence for rape, Equality Now said.
Equality Now said child marriages often lead to young brides who are isolated and, because of their marital status, have little access to education and other services generally provided to children. In cases where a girl has the legal right to void her marriage, it is difficult to do so without knowledge of the law, education and financial support.
The U.N. population fund says rates of child marriage are highest in the West African nation of Niger, where 75 percent of girls are married before they turn 18, and a third are wed before age 15. Under Niger’s law, the minimum age for marriage is 15, but traditional customs often prevail in villages.
In Bangladesh, the rate of child marriage is 66 percent, and in Central African Republic and Chad it is 68 percent. In India, 47 percent of girls are married before they turn 18.
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are the only Arab countries that do not have laws that set a minimum age for marriage. According to a December 2011 Human Rights Watch report, approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, were married before age 15, and 52 percent were wed before they turned 18.