Child marriage: sex and money, Juliet and Fawziya Ammodi

This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

I think a TRIGGER WARNING is appropriate here.

Why does the institution of marriage exist? Even highly romanticized commercials for De Beers speak to the primary historic nature of the marriage contract: material well-being, as well as securing that well-being for the future generation. This isn’t to say that people who wound up, and continue to wind up, married to each other have no emotional investment in the enterprise. But even the many symbolic acts that occur across cultures when people tie the knot also tend to have practical roots, no?

In light of all that, it almost weirds me out when anyone professes to be shocked by the phenomenon of child marriage. “Really,” I want to say. “Have you taken a look at the world you live in as of late?”

In Yemen, a study by Sanaa University found that something like half the women are married off before they are 18. Last year, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl, Fawziya Ammodi, and her baby died after three days of painful labour – it was a highly publicized case, but how many such cases never even get on anyone’s radar?

Still, Yemeni society, already in a precarious position for many socio-economic reasons, is held together by seriously entrenched tribal customs, and it won’t let go of those customs without a fight. Plenty of parents think that they are setting their little girl up with a better future when they marry her off. This is why you can’t address the issue of child marriage without addressing poverty. Giving parents an actual financial incentive to not marry off their little kid is the challenge – as opposed to any sort of initial ideological conversion.

Armed conflict plays its part as well. Living in the Middle East, I heard plenty of young Palestinian girls married off to older Saudi men, for example. In fact, a Saudi friend of mine was once accosted by an older Palestinian woman who mistakenly believed him to be on the prowl – “What you do with our girls is shameful!” she screamed.

You can’t address child marriage without addressing sex either. What is one of the biggest arguments for child marriage? The idea that it cuts down on wanton sluttitude, of course. One of the things that more traditional cultures inevitably get right is the whole notion that hey, children are sexual beings to one extent or another. What they tend to do with that notion is another matter entirely, of course. Girls in particular are seen as both as “threat” and a kind of product that can’t stay on the shelf for too long, lest it get spoiled. How do you begin to deal with that? I believe that making this an issue of health is a good start. Sure, giving birth when you’re 12 used to be the norm across the board once upon a time – and it was also during that time that people didn’t live for very long, now, did they?

I believe that one of the really unhelpful ways in which we, as outsiders, treat child marriage is in the hand-wringing. Let’s say you meet a woman from an African nation and, in the course of getting to know her, find out that the first time she was actually married was, like, 12. Going “OH MY GOD! THAT MUST HAVE BEEN HORRIBLE! OH MY GOD! SOMEBODY GET THE SMELLING SALTS!” is completely uncalled-for. It can often be pretty demeaning, actually.

The one time I really got a chance to have a candid conversation with a woman who had that background, the way she related to what happened struck me. She was honest about the fact that getting married made her feel mature. She was honest about the brutality of her first sexual encounter with her husband at age 14 (she didn’t use the word “rape,” so I won’t put words in her mouth – although I believe that rape is exactly what happens in this type of situation, I can’t find another word to define it). She was honest about how glad she was that she didn’t get pregnant during her first marriage. She also fully believed that her parents wanted nothing but the best for her. She was honest about the fact that when her first husband died, she mourned him. Would she want the same for her daughters? No. But by the time we spoke, she was living in an altogether different life.

Shocking? To someone like me, yes. But I remember – Shakespeare’s Juliet was 13. We rightfully label Humbert Humbert as a monster, but we can’t deny the fact that “Lolita” has entered the vernacular not as the rape victim that Nabokov described, but as an underage sex kitten. “If she’s old enough to bleed, she’s old enough to breed” is not just a sexist joke employed to get a rise out of you, it has its basis in a certain culture and a certain worldview. It goes back to the idea of what a partnership between a man and a woman (the act of marriage is supposed to make a “woman” out of a girl, of course) means to us. And it goes back to the nature of how millions of people on this planet live their lives – how harsh the experience can be, and how utilitarian in many of its goals, with a girl’s body as a handy tool. If the tool breaks, so what? There’s plenty more where it came from.

In that sense, the fight that’s going on over child marriage in Yemen is only the tip of the iceberg.

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10 comments for “Child marriage: sex and money, Juliet and Fawziya Ammodi

  1. Sarah
    April 8, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    This is why I get really frustrated whenever people bring up the “fifteen have always been having sex” argument. Um…first off, no, that’s not universal to all cultures – if you look through church records the average age of first marriage through much of the middle ages in Europe, for example, was between 17 and 20 for young women, 18 and 25 for most men. Anthropologists studying the !Kung tribe found that, while women were “married” when they were in their mid-teens, they rarely began having sex with their husbands until they were at least 16 or 17. Cultures vary widely in what is considered appropriate, wise, or financially savvy, and so behaviors vary widely.

    Secondly, most of those young women who are cited having babies at 12-16 years of age are in societies which saw (or see) them as possessions and brood mares; they weren’t “having sex”, they were being raped. And no, I bet many of them WEREN’T caused a lot of psychological trauma or felt as if they had been forced, because they had been told since they were little bitty babies that it was their role and many of them internalized it; I bet a lot of them “consented” at least in so far as their society allowed them any agency at all. That doesn’t make it consensual, affirmative sex.

    Yet I hear just such an argument employed far too often in the defense of the “hook-up” culture. If we’re going to do a good job advocating the position that fifteen or sixteen year olds who are having sex are doing it knowingly, and in healthy and non-damaging ways, can we please not bolster that argument by saying, in essence, “Women throughout history have been raped at that age and turned out fine”?

  2. April 8, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I try to think about the historical context, particularly back when the United States was a largely agrarian based country where many people were farmers. Men regularly married multiple women at very young ages since people didn’t really live that long in the first place and also that many women died in childbirth.

    One of my ancestors, circa 1830, was married four times to very young women (aged 13 and 14) because there was a constant need for workers to tend to the farmer and, moreover, three of his wives died in childbirth. There are also stories where women were married off at young ages, but gentleman’s agreements stipulated that the new husband would wait a few years before having sex with his new bride. There were also instances well into the 20th century of young women in poverty who were married off early in life to give their families one less mouth to feed.

  3. Holy!
    April 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Human Rights Watch has long been reporting about problems in Yemen, which seem to be plentiful: “Human Rights Watch reported on discrimination and violence against women as well as on the abolition of the minimum marriage age of fifteen for women. The onset of puberty (interpreted by some to be as low as the age of nine) was set as a requirement for marriage instead. Publicity about the case of ten-year old Yemeni divorcee Nujood Ali, brought the child marriage issue to the fore not only in Yemen, but worldwide.
    Forms of hostile prejudice directed towards disabled people, and religious minorities have also been reported. Censorship is actively practiced and in 2005 legislation was passed requiring journalists to reveal their sources under certain circumstances, and the government has raised the start-up costs for newspapers and websites significantly. In violation of the Yemeni constitution, the security forces often monitor telephone, postal, and Internet communications. Journalists who tend to be critical of the government are often harassed and threatened by the police.”

    From wiki

  4. Amarantha
    April 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    It’s weird how malleable the conception of adolescence is–a person seen as “merely a child” can be viewed as a full adult in other places and times. Then again, I remember my ability to think/process at age 10, for instance, and wonder how much of my childish thought process was really cultural and how much was just plain dictated by biology.

  5. Amarantha
    April 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Also, the notion that women historically married young is not universally true. In times of poor nutrition, women often did not start menstruating until 18. First marriage/sexual activity has varied with culture and environmental circumstances throughout our history.

  6. April 8, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    i think “enjoyed” would be the wrong word, but i … appreciated? this piece a lot. i’d be interested in learning more about the economic and cultural conditions that create a society where marriage at 13 years old makes sense – as you say, it seems focusing on those underpinnings is much more productive than attacking, blaming, or demeaning the young women themselves.

  7. April 8, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Going “OH MY GOD! THAT MUST HAVE BEEN HORRIBLE! OH MY GOD! SOMEBODY GET THE SMELLING SALTS!” is completely uncalled-for. It can often be pretty demeaning, actually.

    I just wanted to say that I particularly appreciated this part. I’ve found it really insulting, demeaning, and “othering” when people have done that to me as a rape survivor. Sometimes sympathy is appropriate, sometimes it’s not. I don’t think that freaking out is ever appropriate. And making it into a Huge. Deal. when the survivors themselves aren’t isn’t either. But my point is really that if I’ve felt that, I can only imagine that it’s a lot worse when the person freaking out holds cultural and/or racial privilege over the survivor, for whom being othered is already an incredibly common experience.

  8. ShelbyWoo
    April 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    But I remember – Shakespeare’s Juliet was 13.

    And completely fictional! Aristocracy may have been arranging marriages for their teenaged children during that period, but for the average woman alive during Shakespeare’s time, their first marriage was sometime in their 20s. Girls marrying at 13 was far from “the norm” at that time.

  9. Sonia
    April 10, 2010 at 1:13 am

    “Human Rights Watch reported on discrimination and violence against women as well as on the abolition of the minimum marriage age of fifteen for women. The onset of puberty (interpreted by some to be as low as the age of nine) was set as a requirement for marriage instead. Publicity about the case of ten-year old Yemeni divorcee Nujood Ali, brought the child marriage issue to the fore not only in Yemen, but worldwide.”

    I don’t see how this could be changed without getting into conflict with people wanting to follow Islam properly. The 9-yr old age comes from the age of Ayesha marrying the Prophet (PBUH).

  10. April 10, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Well, the Virgin Mary was probably 12 or 13 or so when she gave birth to Christ, if you go with Hebrew tradition. Religions tend to be dynamic in many ways – that’s why they survive. Islam isn’t any different in this regard, I believe. After all, back when it was formed, slavery was not an issue, for example, and the texts reflect this reality. Nowadays, slavery is banned even in a hugely conservative nation like Saudi Arabia.

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