Child marriage: Written in the verses?

Published in The Jakarta Post, Paper Edition 27 May 2016.

In many studies on child marriage in Indonesia, economic motivation is said to be the major driver behind this practice. This premise is not completely misleading. However, I once met a teenager who wanted to get married because she felt sinful after hanging out alone with a boy who was not her muhrim or closest family.

In another case, a girl “insisted” that her male friend marry her after they exchanged several text messages. Deep in her heart, she liked this boy, but she feared exchanging text messages could lead her toward “unwanted feelings and behavior”. Getting married therefore became the only solution for her to express her affection toward the opposite sex.

After the lovebirds got married, she and her “husband” promised to refrain from having sexual intercourse until they both graduated. They still live separately in different boarding houses and only meet for dinner. Her “husband” is not yet able to support her, as his own daily needs are still covered by his scholarship. But she said proudly, “this is what I call ‘dating after marriage’.”

Cases such as those aforementioned, involving 17 to 20-year-olds in my encounters, do not occur only in small villages or remote areas. Such cases also occur in urban areas, at universities and in educated, middle-income Muslim society.

To these people, the body, particularly women’s bodies and sexuality, are alarming. Women’s sexuality leads to worries about the many horrible things that could possibly happen. Women are not allowed to express their sexuality in any way outside the institution of marriage. They have tried to limit their contact with the opposite sex by covering their heads and avoiding any skin contact. But even using hijab is not enough. They need more assurance.

People learn these viewpoints and believe them as truths taken from various sources, including religious texts and references. These views often apply a purely textual approach in interpreting the texts and neglect the context in which they arose. This approach constricts their imagination about social interaction; anything related to male-female relationships is forbidden, except as legally avowed through marriage.

Furthermore, within circles holding such beliefs, marriage is used as a means to legitimate subordination of women, and even their repression. Women are not allowed access to contraceptives because, in their view, family planning is not in line with sharia. Furthermore, their religious beliefs also call on them to multiply the Prophet Muhammad’s followers by giving birth to as many children as possible.

Their desire to fulfill God’s command is commendable, but the gender division of labor and women’s continuous reproductive work are the consequences of this imbalance in gender relations.

For girls, public space excludes them and is male-dominated. For example, when a girl gets pregnant and gives birth, if she is still at school or university, she will automatically take maternity leave for at least one semester, or simply drop out. She will gradually stop being involved in student organizations and will not be allowed to socialize, except perhaps for running household errands. The husband, on the other hand, continues at school or in his job, and all the domestic work is handled by his wife.

The cases above indicate that textualist religious viewpoints are very powerful in legitimating child marriage. Typically, children do not have a voice in decision-making. However in a few cases the girls insist on an early marriage by persuading their parents using religious texts and references.

Follow-up studies are needed to further explore the religious views and interpretations used to encourage child marriage. Our research outfit, Rumah Kita Bersama ( Our Collective House ), has initiated this effort by publishing a guide to religious texts on child marriage, Fikih Kawin Anak. However, further support is still needed from a more progressive Islamic perspective to counter prevailing arguments.

Surely every marriage is supposed to bring about virtue and harmony. However, when a marriage is not supported by equal rights between husband and wife, marriage always becomes an arena of subordination which pushes women into the domestic space, with increasingly unbalanced gender and power relations.

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