Forced marriage is and has been a problem in all cultures and religions. From the fundamentalist Christian polygamist sects of the American west, to Israeli cult leaders, to the sale of child brides from Hindu families in India, religion has been used as a justification to enslave and control girls and women in marriages against their will. However, most of the recent stories of forced marriage and child brides in the news have centered around Islamic countries and cultures. So is forced marriage supported by Islam, or is it "un-Islamic?"
The recent case of a 12-year-old Yemini girl who bled to death after being forced to marry a man (and subsequently raped by him) has brought the spotlight to shine squarely upon the issue of child brides in Muslim countries. Some scholars and humanitarians have claimed that the serious, almost obsessive valuing of female chastity until marriage in many Muslim countries and communities leads families to "preserve" girl children's virtue by forcing them to marry before they develop an interest in sex. Others have claimed that the lack of political freedom and economic equality of women in Muslim countries contributes to the problem. Regardless of the cause and even though forced marriage is far from a uniquely Muslim problem, it seems to be rampant in Muslim countries.
Tariq Ramadan, a world-renowned Swiss Islamic scholar, says that despite that pattern, forced marriage violates the basic tenets of Islam, and it's time Muslim religious leaders began to speak out against it. Ramadan points out that Muslim religious texts, traditions, and social mores are interpreted by human beings — just like those of every world religion. Traditions and values change over time as human beings learn more about the world around them. Practices which were once acceptable to people of faith (slavery, child abuse, racism) should no longer be tolerated by religious tradition. And forced or child marriage is one of these "traditional" practices which needs to evolve with the growing importance of basic human rights for women around the world. Islam, Ramadan says, just needs to evolve its traditions into the 21st centrury.
In addition to the Muslim scholars who have spoken out against forced marriage, the texts on which Islam is based clearly state that consent from both parties is crucial to having a marriage blessed by God. The Koran, like the Bible, the Talmud, and other religious texts is full of statements supporting human rights for women and condemning actions like rape and forcing people into servitude.
But if forced marriage is so clearly un-Islamic, then why do Muslim religious leaders sanction forced marriages of children to much older men, and why do communities of good, devout Muslims tolerate the practice? I imagine it's for much of the same reason fundamentalist Christians bomb abortion clinics and wave neo-nazi flags: the power of culture. The Bible, as a religious text, is pretty clear about the position Christians should have when it comes to violence and hate crimes: just say no and turn the other cheek. But in the U.S., some cultures have developed which value, say, being a white person above all else. So they use the Bible to support the very things the text condemns: violence and hate. In Yemen, Iran, and other Muslim countries, the same dynamic plays out around forced marriage. The biggest difference is, of course, the amount of political power the extremist groups hold.
As a religion, Islam doesn't support forced marriage any more than any other major religion. That means that the forces supporting forced marriage are political and cultural, as opposed to religious. Sure, it may seem like a minute distinction, but it actually makes a huge difference, because politics and culture evolve much more readily than religion does, and people are much less willing to die for the former than the latter. It's the difference, perhaps, between a velvet revolution and the next round of the crusades.
Are there any Muslim readers who care to comment about what they think their faith says about forced marriage?