Friday, 19 March 2010

Gender Equality Still Falls Short

Wednesday March 17, 2010

By Marina Mahathir

Two child brides made the news lately, one only after she was found in a semi-conscious state; and in each case their father had consented to the marriage.

THERE are perhaps no more base moments in morality than when fathers think it is OK to give away their ten-year-old daughters in marriage to men four times their age. Even worse, that it is done under the guise of religion.

In the past week we have learnt that two little girls were married off to grown men with the permission of their fathers, their wali. The newspapers were full of indignation but mostly focused on the fact that these marriages did not follow procedures, one having been allegedly conducted in a car.

At least one of the fathers claimed that he was “mesmerised” by the intended groom and therefore allowed his daughter to be taken in marriage.

The papers even allowed that these marriages may be permissible, as a loophole in the State Enactments gives judges the power to permit them despite the minimum marriage age for girls being 16.

Subsequently, one of the little girls has turned up semi-conscious, dumped in a mosque. One shudders at the thought of what she might have gone through.

What sort of society are we living in that we no longer recognise child abuse for what it is, especially when the cloak of religion is flung over it? What else do we call an adult man marrying a child but paedophilia?

If we want to blame the parents, we may have grounds but we also have to stop short. They believed what the groom said when he claimed that such a marriage is completely in line with religion because the Prophet Muhammad married his youngest wife Aisyah when she was six. (This legend is now disputed with some scholars contending that she was in fact 19.)

This is what happens when people have not only little religious knowledge but also have constantly been told never to question what so-called religious people tell them.

Had the father listened to his conscience, he might have remembered that the Prophet was first married to Khadijah, who was 15 years older than him, and that they had a loving marriage for 25 years, producing seven children.

He never married another woman until after Khadijah died; even then they were widows who needed care and protection or to seal alliances with tribal chiefs.

His love for his first wife was eternal because, as he was reportedly quoted to have said, “she believed in me when no one else did; she accepted Islam when people rejected me; and she helped and comforted me when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand”.

Had the father asked anyone with some knowledge, he might have found out what the law says about the legal age of marriage. But because someone quoted him something that sounded vaguely religious, he believed him and gave his daughter’s hand.

We have to ask ourselves how could this happen in our supposedly developing country in the 21st century? Indeed, how could so many things happen to our children, from being abandoned at birth (and often not surviving that) to pregnancy at an early age with little knowledge of how to cope?

On March 8, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) released the Asia Pacific Human Development Report with the focus on gender equality. Or rather, where such equality stands in Asia.

Unfortunately even with much economic progress, we all still fall short, with many gaps between the sexes remaining.

But Malaysia was supposed to be one of the success stories, with a high literacy rate, many girls in education and in the workplace. Yet in some areas we still fare poorly.

On March 9, India passed a Bill to reserve 33% of places in Parliament and state legislatures for women. In Pakistan, the President signed an Anti-Sexual Harassment Law.

In Malaysia we have not moved at all on either of these, despite ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Dis­crimination Against Women more than 15 years ago.

Interestingly enough, Malaysia also signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995 but with many reservations, including on children’s age of majority.

When we gasp at the idea of little girls being married off, we never ask how come it doesn’t happen also to little boys. It’s perhaps because we often view females as property to be given away as and when we feel like it.

Is it not ironic that while a Muslim father has free rein to give away his girl child in marriage, adult women, who presumably have much more agency than children, cannot marry if their fathers refuse permission, without going through the rigmarole of getting a court-appointed guardian?

In whose interest is it to perpetually treat women like children?

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