Muslims want child-bride ban lifted

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 July, 2002, 12:00am

An Islamic group is demanding the right to marry off Muslim girls at puberty.

Indian law prohibits any girl getting married before the age of 18 as part of decade-long efforts to rid the country of the ancient practice of child marriage. But the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to represent a sizeable number of Indian Muslims, is demanding special exemption.

At a recent meeting in Hyderabad, the board said it would not tolerate any law that interfered with the Shariat, the Islamic law governing personal matters.

'We are filing a petition in the Supreme Court over the 1978 Child Marriage Restraint Act. This Act cannot be applied to Muslims as the Shariat permits a girl to get married when she attains puberty,' the board's general-secretary, Mohammed Abdul Rahim Qureishi, said. Mr Qureshi added that in matters of marriage and divorce, the Shariat was absolute, final and non-negotiable.

Marrying girls at puberty is common in the Muslim world. In Iran, the legal age for marriage is nine for girls. An exception is Turkey, which recently raised the marriageable age for girls from 15 to 18.

Hyderabad police have recorded innumerable cases of wealthy, elderly Arabs, some over 70, coming to the city to marry Muslim girls as young as 11. Since Muslims refuse to register marriages with the authorities, these cases only come to light if the girl protests.

This was one of the reasons why the Hyderabad authorities recently made the registration of marriages mandatory.

Child marriage in India is not confined to Muslims. Some Hindu rural communities also practise it, particularly in Rajasthan, where it is occasionally carried out en masse, presenting a bizarre spectacle: little brides and bridegrooms playing with their toys (like the children they are) during the nuptials, nodding off, sucking their thumbs or sitting in their parents' laps.

Sociologists trace the origin of child marriages in Rajasthan to Muslim invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. Legend has it that the invaders raped and kidnapped unmarried Hindu girls, prompting Hindu communities to marry off their daughters almost from birth to protect them.