The Silent Tragedy of Child Marriage


Last Friday, an Afghan journalist named Mustafa Kazemi posted on Facebook a harrowing story about an eight-year-old girl in the Khashrood district of Nimruz province in Afghanistan, who was sold off into marriage to a mullah in his late 50s, and who bled to death on their wedding night.

It was one of many such tragedies in a land that little notes nor long remembers such deaths. An eight-year-old girl sold into marriage and dead after a brutal sexual assault that her body could not withstand is no more noteworthy than a pack animal that collapses under a too-heavy weight. It’s time and money wasted, that’s all. Forget about it. Get another one.

Indeed, the day after Kazemi posted his account, pro-Sharia lawmakers in Afghanistan blocked a proposed Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, which would have set criminal penalties for child marriage. Pro-Sharia legislator Khalil Ahmad Shaheedzada denounced the law as un-Islamic, explaining: “Whatever is against Islamic law, we don’t even need to speak about it.”

That means that more girls like the eight year old in the Khashrood district will continue to suffer. For few things are more abundantly attested in Islamic law than the permissibility of child marriage. Islamic tradition records that Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was six when Muhammad wedded her and nine when he consummated the marriage:

The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death) (Bukhari 7.62.88).

Another tradition has Aisha herself recount the scene:

The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became Allright, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age. (Bukhari 5.58.234).

Muhammad was at this time fifty-four years old.


Marrying young girls was not all that unusual for its time, but because in Islam Muhammad is the supreme example of conduct (cf. Qur’an 33:21), he is considered exemplary in this unto today. And so in April 2011, the Bangladesh Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini declared that those trying to pass a law banning child marriage in that country were putting Muhammad in a bad light: “Banning child marriage will cause challenging the marriage of the holy prophet of Islam… [putting] the moral character of the prophet into controversy and challenge.” He added a threat: “Islam permits child marriage and it will not be tolerated if any ruler will ever try to touch this issue in the name of giving more rights to women.” The mufti said that 200,000 jihadists were ready to sacrifice their lives for any law restricting child marriage.

Likewise the influential website in December 2010 justified child marriage by invoking not only Muhammad’s example, but the Qur’an as well:

The Noble Qur’an has also mentioned the waiting period [i.e. for a divorced wife to remarry] for the wife who has not yet menstruated, saying: “And those who no longer expect menstruation among your women—if you doubt, then their period is three months, and [also for] those who have not menstruated” [Qur’an 65:4]. Since this is not negated later, we can take from this verse that it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a prepubescent girl. The Qur’an is not like the books of jurisprudence which mention what the implications of things are, even if they are prohibited. It is true that the prophet entered into a marriage contract with A’isha when she was six years old, however he did not have sex with her until she was nine years old, according to al-Bukhari.

Other countries make Muhammad’s example the basis of their laws regarding the legal marriageable age for girls. Article 1041 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that girls can be engaged before the age of nine, and married at nine: “Marriage before puberty (nine full lunar years for girls) is prohibited. Marriage contracted before reaching puberty with the permission of the guardian is valid provided that the interests of the ward are duly observed.”


Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini himself married a ten-year-old girl when he was twenty-eight. Khomeini called marriage to a prepubescent girl “a divine blessing,” and advised the faithful to give their own daughters away accordingly: “Do your best to ensure that your daughters do not see their first blood in your house.” When he took power in Iran, he lowered the legal marriageable age of girls to nine, in accord with Muhammad’s example.

Unsurprisingly, such laws are a boon to pedophiles, who, as Time magazine reported in 2001, can “marry poor young girls from the provinces, use and then abandon them,” all within the bounds of Islamic law. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that over half of the girls in Afghanistan and Bangladesh are married before they reach the age of eighteen. In early 2002, researchers in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan found half the girls married by age thirteen. In an Afghan refugee camp, more than two out of three second-grade girls were either married or engaged, and virtually all the girls who were beyond second grade were already married. One ten-year-old girl was engaged to a man of sixty.

Because of the Prophet’s example, such unsavory arrangements are resistant to reform. In an attempt to quash legislation that would raise the minimum marriage age to seventeen, in 2009 Muslim clerics in Yemen issued a fatwa declaring that opposition to child marriage makes one an apostate from Islam. That law was actually passed, but then quickly repealed after some Yemeni legislators dubbed it un-Islamic. The Moroccan imam Mohamed al-Maghraoui himself issued a fatwa in 2008 declaring that marriage with a nine-year-old girl was acceptable according to Islamic law; more Western-minded Moroccan Islamic authorities nullified al-Maghraoui’s ruling, but al-Maghraoui defiantly repeated it in 2011.


In Malaysia in December 2010, a government minister, Nazri Aziz, said at a press conference that the Malaysian government had no plans to legislate against child marriage, because of Islam: “If the religion allows it, then we can’t legislate against it.” And in July 2011, the Saudi cleric Salih bin Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council, issued a fatwa of his own, declaring that Islamic law set no minimum age for marriage at all, and that therefore girls could be lawfully married off “even if they are in the cradle.”

As with other aspects of Islamic law and practice, immigration has extended child marriage into Western countries. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) declared that in England in 2010, at least thirty girls in Islington, a neighborhood of greater London, were forced into marriage, and that some were as young as nine years old. In Sweden, there are several hundred reported incidences of child marriage every year.

Who will speak up for these girls? Apparently the Western “human rights” organizations largely believe that it would be “Islamophobic” to do so. And so the little girl who bled to death in Afghanistan last week was not the first, and she will not by any means be the last.


images courtesy shutterstock / Smailhodzic / Aleksandar Mijatovic / Darrin Henry