A system designed to maim women into submission

Last year, at a women’s community centre in Kabul I met Hamida.* A Herati, she was staying with relatives in the teeming capital, after her husband left her destitute when he left to go work in Iran, where she suspected he maintained another family. She had been married to him for seven years before divorcing him three years ago. In her married life, she had experienced extraordinary abuse at the hands of both her husband and her in-laws, with whom she lived. After making the courageous decision to leave her husband, she tried to return to her father’s household but was turned away, hence the reason she was boarding with an aunt and an uncle in Kabul, far away from her native Herat. A survivor of domestic violence, a divorcee, illiterate and uneducated, Hamida had lived a tumultuous life and bore the scars of years of drudgery in a joyless marriage.

Here’s the thing about Hamida: she’s 17. Sixteen when I met her last spring.

After her mother died, her father sold her in marriage at the age of seven, in exchange for another family’s seven-year-old girl who became her father’s bride. When the abuse became too much to endure, Hamida fled from her bridal home. She was 14 and had already been a wife for seven years.

Shunned by all her relatives in Herat, including her own father, she made her way to Kabul where she was taken in by an aunt and uncle who are kind to her but too poor to keep her under their roof indefinitely. But neither can she return to Herat, where she’s considered a disgrace who dishonoured her father by leaving her abusive husband. She had no skills, no work experience and no plan of what to do next. Hamida was being driven mad with anxiety and hopelessness. In the hours I spent talking with Hamida, I never her saw her smile even once. She felt psychologically defeated and could see no reason to continue living.

For the cultural relativists who would defend child marriage, the story of Hamida and millions of others like her should make it clear that there is nothing to romanticize about the practice of child marriage. It’s a universally miserable and despicable affair, a social structure that sanctifies the sexual abuse of minors and steals childhoods away from unsuspecting little girls who are rarely privy to what is about to happen to them. Child marriage denies education to millions of girls, and assaults the bodies of girls who end up pregnant before their own bodies are fully developed, and they frequently die in pregnancy or childbirth as a result. When they survive pregnancy, they have children who are often unhealthy or malnourished, and have a greater chance of dying in infancy. And yet despite these well established consequences, globally one in every seven girls is forced into marriage before the age of 15, translating to 100 million girls being married in the next decade, or “about 25,000 children married every day for the next 10 years,” according to one estimate.

A recent photo essay in Foreign Policy on child marriage in Afghanistan shows through image the surreal world where children have real weddings rather than make-believe weddings. It’s a world where children are paraded around as adults, draped in white wedding gowns, teetering in oversized highheels, and adorned with gaudy make-up. It’s not a game of dress-up, but a ritual wherein tiny, innocent daughters are handed over by their parents to older men who, after the wedding ceremony, will permanently traumatize them by raping their small bodies, an experience no one will take the time to explain or prepare them for in advance.

And yet, it’s a ritual fiercely protected by numerous societies in which entire communities are complicit, despite minimum marriage ages for girls in most countries of the world, as Cynthia Gorney writes in a recent National Geographic article examining the persistence of the practice in several countries, including Afghanistan:

Forced early marriage thrives to this day in many regions of the world arranged by parents for their own children, often in defiance of national laws, and understood by whole communities as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternatives, especially if they carry a risk of her losing her virginity to someone besides her husband, are unacceptable.

Child marriage is firmly anchored in the notion that the purity of a community is manifested in the modesty and asexualism of women and girls so that they serve as a kind of symbolic barometer of “honour.” Meanwhile, men are largely free not only to seek pleasure in their sex lives but also in many cases to venture into the darker sides of their sexual urges, acting on perversions that are written off with a wink and a knowing smile, men just being men you know. It’s within such a system that men can rape and women rape victims are then punished for having extramarital sex (zina), such as was mandated by the Hudood Ordinance of Zia-al-haq’s Pakistan. And it’s within such a system that the need to protect a girl’s virginity until marriage (or even just to avoid rumours of prosmicuity) trumps the need to protect her from rape and sexual molestation by an adult male.

This is very obviously a situation where an obsession with reputation and modesty has spun into nonsensical madness, where entire communities are behaving delusionally, blind to anything but the fear that a girl from their family, their street, their neighbourhood might show too much skin, look at a boy the wrong way, sleep with someone without being married to them, or even worse, fall in love of her own volition. In their blindness, the piercing physical and emotional pain that child marriage (which is inseparable from child rape) imposes on daughters that families purport to love, and the broader harm that child marriage brings to societies who disable their female populations from being contributing agents of their society, is considered a casualty sacrificed towards a greater purpose.

The wrongheaded worship of women’s modesty and premarital virginity, and the association of women’s bodies to cultural honour and purity must be unravelled, and the tragedy of the continued practice of child marriage exposed for what it is: a guise for male pedophiliac behaviour and a system designed to maim women into submission. In the West, we must cease being so polite about a cultural practice we are often loathe to criticize for fear of offending others. And in Afghanistan, religious leaders must publicly and unequivocally shame the practice, in a country where the average female marriage age is 15. The Afghan Government must act aggressively to bring to justice adults who perpetuate child marriage and to publicize the harmful impact of child marriage on girls’ health and on the children they bear, as well as on the social and economic standing of communities.

Child marriage is a health and human rights crisis that has seamlessly transitioned from the Taliban’s Government of Misogyny into the Afghanistan on the receiving end of billions of dollars of foreign aid and the site of a plethora of altruistic efforts to improve the lot of women and girls. It should not be happening under the noses of an international community that says it wants to strengthen women’s rights in Afghanistan. It should not be occurring with impunity in a country that has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and which has a Constitution that says there shall be gender equality and a minimum marriage age of 16 years for females. But it’s occurring and it’s thriving, and it’s a travesty we should wipe clean from this earth.

*A pseudonym.

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