Early marriage is a difficult-to-define concept. A spontaneous survey of friends and colleagues would probably produce a variety of answers about what the phrase means. According to the World Health Organization, early marriage and child marriage are synonymous, and it uses marriage before the age of 18 as its definition of both. In Islamic societies, the boundaries between cultural tradition and religious laws have become blurred, leading to justification for the practice.
The Global Situation
A WHO report published in 2013 announced that based on global trend statistics, 39,000 girls younger than the age of 18 marry every day. Before 2020, another 140 million will have become brides and almost 19 million of them will be younger than 15 years of age. The majority live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Early marriage in these regions, most of them developing countries, occurs for a mix of cultural, religious and economic reasons. Many of the countries with high rates of early marriage are predominantly Islamic, such as Niger and Bangladesh. However, the links between this practice and Islamic teachings are tenuous and based on a mixture of ultra-orthodox interpretations of the Prophet Muhammad's own life, rather than on his actual teachings.
Islam favors early marriage to prevent illicit sexual relations. Since puberty marks the onset of developing sexual urges, the Prophet Muhammad encouraged young people to marry. He said,"O young people! Whoever among you can marry, should marry ..." according to Hadith volume 7, Book 62, Number 74. The interpretation of the Prophet's advice is necessarily subjective, because he doesn't mention a specific age. Accepted marriage practices during Muhammad's era also have a bearing on the interpretation. Marriage partners are also supposed to have reached mental maturity. Campaigners against early marriage at Sisters in Islam point out that puberty doesn't equal maturity, even though historically it has been a traditional sign of adulthood in many societies.
The Basis for Early Marriage
A number of Muslim's use the Prophet's life as a guide to proper Islamic behavior. This applies to the issue of early marriage. Supporters of early marriage point to Muhammad's betrothal to Aishah when he was 6 years old. However, evidence also suggests that he didn't consummate the marriage until she was at least 9 years of age and had reached puberty. This was acceptable during Muhammad's lifetime. Sisters in Islam argue that using this as an argument for early marriage is too literal an approach, although they point out that Muslims who disagree with the practice face charges of being "Westoxicated."
Challenging Early Marriage
The Prophet does stipulate that a girl should give her consent to marriage, yet evidence collected by numerous non-governmental organizations suggests that this Islamic law is regularly flouted. Sisters in Islam suggest that pro-early marriage Muslims should be challenged over the use of the Prophet's marriage to Aishah as exemplary, while his marriage to Khadijah, who was 15 years his senior, is ignored. The campaigners also suggest contemporary Muslims shouldn't base marriage practices on an historical context.
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