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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