Sunday, January 17, 2016

Push to ban child marriages dubbed 'blasphemy' in Pakistan

One in every four women in the world is married off by the age of 17, and a government's attempt to prevent this has just been rebuffed as "blasphemous" and "anti-Islamic".

Marvi Memon is a sophisticated woman. She is a member of parliament, a former banker and businesswoman, a graduate of the London School of Economics, raised in a prominent political family. She is one of the most high-profile members of the Pakistan Muslim League, which holds government in Pakistan.

None of this helped her last week, when a draft bill she had tabled, aimed at curbing child marriages, was withdrawn after it was described as "blasphemous" by a religious authority.

The current civil law designates 16 as the legal age of marriage, but in practice sharia allows girls as young as nine to be married, providing they show signs of puberty. This reflects the primacy of sharia over civil law.

The 43-year-old Memon had introduced the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 and impose penalties on those who arrange child marriages.

The most heroic women in the struggle for women's rights are the Muslim women who risk violence and scorn in seeking to reform Islam into a faith that reflects the equality of women, not the values of 7th century tribal society on the Arabian peninsula.

But Memon hit a roadblock of intransigent religious and cultural conservatism, an intransigence that is rising in the Muslim world, not receding.

This particular roadblock was the Council of Islamic Ideology, which has been given the power to vet all proposed legislation in Pakistan's parliament to see if it complies with sharia.

The council found the bill to be not only "anti-Islamic" but "blasphemous". The government promptly withdrew the bill.

No surprise there. The unelected council had previously opposed a law that would allow DNA testing to be admissible as evidence in rape cases. It found this conflicted with the mandate under sharia that a woman or girl claiming she was raped required four witnesses to support her claim.

Marvi Memon had been warned. When the law restricting child marriages was first proposed in 2014, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, Mohammad Khan Sheerani, had pointed out that under sharia a marriage could take place when a girl had attained puberty or signs of puberty.

At the time he was reported by Agence France-Presse as reiterating that under sharia the minimum age for marriage is nine and "parliament cannot create legislation that is against the teachings of the Holy Quran or Sunnah".

The draft bill against child marriage thus never even reached a vote. And Pakistan remains a nation in decline, with the dead hand of religious and cultural conservatism as the root cause.

One only has to look at the contrasting fortunes of India and Pakistan. Both countries became independent in 1947 after a bloody partition. Today, India's population is six times bigger than Pakistan's but its economy is eight times larger and growing much faster.

Over the past three years, India's GDP grew 70 per cent faster than Pakistan's. Per capita income in India is almost 25 per cent higher than in Pakistan even though India has a vast rural population that is yet to rise out of subsistence. India, like Pakistan, has also been hindered by corruption, caste and cultural conservatism.

But education is the most effective form of birth control, across all cultures, and India's population of 1.26 billion is growing at 1.2 per cent while Pakistan's population, 200 million, is growing 20 per cent faster, into a weaker economic base.

It is indicative that in the common ground of Britain, where 800,000 Indian Hindus and more than a million Pakistani Muslims have settled, the Hindu population has integrated far more successfully than the Pakistanis.

The Pakistani diaspora remains far more insular and rife with religious extremism. British security services now devote most of their resources to developing intelligence sources inside Britain's Muslim population, with the Pakistani population by far the largest and the most troubled.

In Pakistan itself, politics remains predominantly feudal and immature, with caste, ethnicity, religion and personality taking primacy over policies in voters' loyalties.

Pakistan is stuck. It has a small, sophisticated elite but is afflicted by religious violence and economic stagnation. Its economy is sustained in large part by a huge expatriate population working in servitude in wealthy Arab states.

Yet Pakistan, with all its fevered stagnancy, is not among the worst offenders when it comes to child brides. In fact, the rate of child marriage is higher in India.

Child marriage is most acute in Africa, across cultures that are Muslim, Christian and animist, but is particularly acute among Muslim countries. The countries where the highest proportion of women are married by 17 are all predominantly Muslim, except the Central African Republic, which is 15 per cent Muslim.

The enduring problem of child brides is sweeping in scale. According to a global co-operative of grassroots activist organisations called Girls Not Brides, 700 million of the world's women were married as children. In the poorest third of the world's population, one in three women is married by age 17, or younger.

A woman like Marvi Memon might be a member of a political elite, smart and well-connected, elected to parliament in a seat designated for women, but she has just bounced off the great divide between Islamic conservatism and the modern world.

The treatment of women is central to this divide.

It was thus utterly predictable that the arrival of a million men seeking refugee status in Germany quickly turned ugly over the issue of sexual repression and sexual harassment. The cultural disconnect arrived in Europe via thousands of Muslim men carrying this invisible excess baggage.

Paul Sheehan Sydney Morning Herald Illustration:

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