Islam is still used in Pakistan to marry underage girls to old men

child marriage

Religion happens to be the most convenient tool for the reactionary right in Pakistan when it comes to sanctioning their perversions. This time, grown adult men want to use the state religion to argue for their ‘right’ to perpetuate child marriage.

This scenario necessitates that the state not only sets the legal age for marriage, but also creates an environment to educate the masses – those living below the poverty line as well as the middle and upper classes – whose practices are shaped by a patriarchal idea of women’s agency.

The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 in Pakistan sets the legal age of marriage for boys at 18 and for girls at 16. According to a World Health Organisation report, 21% of girls in Pakistan are married off before they turn 18, which is recognised to be the legal age of consent in most parts of the world.

Despite opposition from reactionary parties, the Pakistani Senate passed an amendment to the law on April 29 2019, which proposes setting the legal age of marriage of both boys and girls at 18. However, the amendment also needs to be adopted by the lower house of Parliament, which is the National Assembly of Pakistan, in order to become law.

Whether the National Assembly of Pakistan will vote the amendment into law or not has yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the amendment has sparked public debate on the issue of child marriage, with reactionary forces arguing that it would be un-Islamic to set an age for marriage and that no law that is against Shariah can be passed, since Pakistan is an Islamic republic.

Instrumentalisation of Islam

There are numerous problems with this reactionary argumentation. Firstly, there are a number of Muslim countries that have set the legal age of marriage at 18.

Secondly, even if it is presumed this law is un-Islamic, there are numerous other Pakistani laws and common practices that are not in line with Shariah.

For instance, Islam is never used to argue against an interest-based economy, because that would jeopardise the functioning of capitalism in different ways. The fact that the state does not really care about having an interest-free economy shows that it is not Islam that is the real problem here.

The problem actually arises only in situations where the interests of those who enjoy power and privilege get threatened.

In the case of the amendment to laws regarding child marriage, the entire system of Pakistani patriarchy that operates on the basis of denying women all kinds of agency comes under attack.

The idea that women should have agency over their personal matters, such as who they would marry and when they would marry, is an open challenge to the patriarchal mindset that denies women any sexual agency and views them as objects created for the purpose of male gratification.

Furthermore, the arguments in favour of child marriage are rooted in the assumption that marriage is a neutral institution. This assumption ignores the fact that the oppression of women and the exploitation of their labour power within the home are rooted in the institutions of marriage and family.

The patriarchal need for young brides

In Pakistan, a high premium is placed on young brides. Justifications for this preference revolve around how it is easier for younger women to “adjust” with the new family. (In most Pakistani families, women come to live in the home of the husband’s parents. The couple lives in the joint family setup until a conflict becomes irreconcilable and/or the parents of the man die.)

These adjustments on part of the ideal young woman range from giving up career aspirations to changes in lifestyle such as the way the woman dresses. It is argued that the older a woman gets, the more “strong-headed” and “unmalleable” she becomes – both qualities are negative and undesirable in women.

Furthermore, wanting a young bride is considered a common desire among men, for the chances of a young bride being a virgin and sexually inexperienced are higher. Consummation of a marriage is already considered by men a feat to be achieved. The value of this feat increases when a man has the power to ‘score’ a child bride.

Poverty and power

While child marriage is prevalent across Pakistan, more cases are reported from rural areas where poverty is far more severe. In these areas, it is usually the father or brother of the child bride who sells her off to an older man.

On May 2 2019, the Shikarpur police arrested a 40-year-old for his attempt to marry a 10-year-old girl. Police raided the venue just after nikah when the child bride was about to be sent away with the man.

According to the man, he paid 250,000 Pakistani rupees (around 1350 British pounds) to the father of the child. Police are looking for the marriage officiator and the child’s father, who are absconding.

This case, which is not the first, shows how child marriage is a privilege enjoyed by those who can exercise power against the lower classes.

Modern Pakistani patriarchy

In the middle-class neighbourhoods of Pakistan’s slightly modern urban settings, child marriage may not be as much a norm as it is in rural or poorer urban settlements.

However, even among middle-class people, many of whom engage in premarital romantic affairs, it is common for men to address their girlfriends as their ‘bachi’, which is the Urdu word for the female child.

Thinking of your girlfriend as a child is problematic and disrespectful on various levels. She is denied adulthood, thereby rendering her an unequal partner in the relationship, who is incapable of making her decisions and having her own mind.

Like in every patriarchal society, the role of the woman in a relationship is always subordinate to the man. Repeatedly addressing your girlfriend as a child (even if it is behind her back) reinforces the belief that the man is the adult and hence the one who has actual power, thereby making it only natural for him to control and manipulate her.

Power in relationships always comes at the cost of the oppression of one of the two partners.

Solution: Laws and more…

If the state passes the law to criminalise child marriages, it would be a step in the right direction. However, this is certainly not enough. In the Sindh province, where the legal age of marriage for both boys and girls has already been set at 18, reports of child marriages continue to surface every other day.

Laws alone cannot undo the patriarchal mindset that makes men think of women as objects designed for their pleasure alone, having no agency of their own.

Alongside laws, we need educational campaigns on the need to eradicate child marriage that must be mandatory for all citizens to attend. These campaigns should be designed around imparting a basic understanding of female agency and consent, and should be run by and remain under the control of working women’s’ organisations in cooperation with unions of teachers, students and medical experts.

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