Making Sense of Child Marriages

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

It all began in June when a 41-year-old rubber tapper in Kelantan decided to marry the girl of his dreams, an 11-year-old and barely pubescent Thai Muslim child without the approval of the state’s shariah court. A month later in July another 44-year-old father of two who took the hand of a 15-year-old child to be his lawful-wedded third wife. This guy, however, was a bit smarter he sought the permission of the religious court. The former but less enlightened man was fined RM1800 for his dalliance with shariah requirement.

The two incidences, though not the only ones, set the backdrop for the on-going debate about child marriage and the laws governing it.

Under local laws both Muslim and non-Muslim children are allowed to marry. For non-Muslims, the minimum marriage age for boys and girls is 18, but non-Muslim girls aged 16 can get married with prior approval of the state’s head of government namely, the Menteri Besar or Chief Minister.

Under state Islamic laws the marriageable age is 18 for boys and 16 for girls but shariah courts have the authority to give consent to those below the permitted age to be betrothed. There is no minimum marriage age for Muslims. The reason, which is so often alluded to when such an arrangement takes place is, if Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) could marry Ayesha who was only nine and the Prophet was 53, there is no reason why other Muslims could not do so.

But that was almost 1400 years ago. Things were definitely different then than they are today. Malaysia is no barren and sandy land like Saudi Arabia. We are not dependent on camels, mules and horses to be mobile. We don’t use swords and scimitars to ward off our enemies. I am not questioning religious tenets and traditions (Hadiths). Modernity has its differences. It is how we interpret things that matter, not downright submission to laws and obligations. Blind loyalty has its pitfalls.

Granted my late mother got hitched when she was 15. She gave birth to my eldest brother when she was 16 and yours truly when she was 18. She married my father a few months before the Japanese surrender in August 1945. The uncertainty following the end of hostilities saw many families going broke. Civil unrest was the order of the day engineered by the fighting elements of the outlawed Malayan Communist Party (MCP) culminating with the declaration of a state of Emergency on June 16, 1948. This lasted for 12 long years until July 12, 1960. However, remnants of the party continued to give our security forces many anxious moments until the Hatyai peace accord signed between the MCP and the Malaysian Government on December 2, 1989.

Now back to child marriage, per se. Lawyers for Liberty and other rights groups are of the opinion that continued inaction by the government over marriages involving minors is making Malaysia a haven for paedophiles. They unanimously rejected Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah’s insistence that the union between the 15-year-old bride and a man 30 years her senior was “consensual”. They termed it “breathtakingly irresponsible”. Latheefa Koya, director of Lawyers for Liberty, called upon the Inspector General of Police to take action against perverted sex predators who use marriage as a licence to have sex with children.

I cannot, in my wildest dreams, imagine my 14-year-old granddaughter or her slightly older niece being married off to some dirty old men who have nothing much in mind but the fulfilment of their sexual fantasies. It’s downright disgusting.

Poverty is no reason to give away your underage children to some strangers so they could live a better life. The parents of the 11-year-old Thai Muslim girl have 13 kids. Makes me wonder why poverty is always associated with ignorance and religion. The more pious the family is, the more children they will sire. Perhaps it is in the teaching. Family planning and birth control are two taboo subjects in Islam and among Catholics. No offence meant.

I was at Clare Rewcastle Brown’s book launch at Tower Regency Hotel, Ipoh on Saturday, September 22. One glaring thing that stood out like a sore thumb was the conspicuous absence of Malays among the 300-odd crowd. There were barely a handful of them, yours truly included. The most highly publicised thievery cum larceny in the world and yet so few Malays were present to hear what a brave lady from London had to say.

And mind you, the grand theft was committed by a Malay who became Prime Minister by default. A high-living Malay politician who felt he had every right to do what he did. What activist Hishamuddin Rais said about the Malay minds being “bonsai-fied” (indoctrinated) is true. The scene is similar at all gatherings be it social or academic, the number of Malays is so few sometimes hardly a handful.

During a talk by Mariam Mokhtar recently a member of the audience asked why Malays seldom attend talks and seminars, especially when they are conducted in English. Lawyer and social activist Haris Ibrahim, who was in attendance, challenged everyone present to bring five Malay friends each to his talk to be conducted in Bahasa Malaysia. There were no takers, as they all knew it was extremely difficult.

This is the real Malaysia and it will remain as such for so long as the majority wish to remain non-committal, indifferent and aloof preferring to be the anointed master race without any visible clout. Need I say more?

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