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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Battle over India's marriage age
The family including Fatima, Muazzamil and in-laws.
Muazzamil and family: Defending young marriages

A conservative Muslim body in India has gone to the High Court to challenge the legal age of marriage, which currently stands at 18.


There are lots of bad things in society these days, so the sooner a girl gets married, the better

Fatima Mehjabin
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board insists that in family matters the country's Muslims should be subject only to Islamic law, known as Sharia.

It maintains that it is supported by a 1937 act upholding Muslims' right to be guided by this law.

The debate has arisen because of a family who have been threatened with arrest because they allowed the marriage of an under-age girl.

Fatima Mehjabin and her husband Muazzamil dote on their four year-old son, Fazal, along with his little brother and sister.

But the very basis for their marriage is now being questioned in court because when they were wed five years ago, Fatima was 17 - one year under the limit set by Indian civil law.

Creeper plants

Fatima says: "Muslim personal law says you can marry at 12, so I didn't see a problem with it. There are lots of bad things in society these days, so the sooner a girl gets married, the better."

Mohammad Quraishi
Quraishi: Custom is not a problem

The family are insisting in the High Court that Muslims are entitled to follow Islamic Sharia law. They say this means allowing weddings any time after puberty, which comes earlier for most girls than boys.

Fatima's father-in-law, Hakkim Sajjad, believes there are sound reasons for this.

He says: "Women are like creeper plants that latch onto any tree they find - whether it's a good tree or a bad tree. Once they get to puberty they are always in danger of falling into bad ways."

That claim provokes scorn among Muslims and non-Muslims. Aruna Reddy, who teaches social work, says that in India, marriage at puberty or even younger is common practice among Hindus, Muslims and tribal groups alike.

Divorce by post

In the slums, where she works, a typical girl might be married and a mother at 13.


The case we've been fighting so long has become a national issue. And, God willing, we will win it and Muslims all over India will be able to follow Sharia law

Muazzamil Sajjad

Aruna says: "No one has ever given her the right to recreation, the right to education, right to shelter, right to food, nutrition. So she doesn't know these things to pass on to the next generation. And the grandmothers are probably in their late 20s."

In Barkas, a part of old Hyderabad, it is men who have traditionally been the predators. In the closely clustered houses, Arabs regularly fly in from abroad and, taking advantage of customary law, marry very young Muslim girls.

But often, after a few weeks, they leave and the girl soon gets divorce papers in the post.

That practice is not likely to stop if the Supreme Court does rule in favour of Muslims marrying at puberty.

The traditionalist Muslim Personal Law Board is supporting the Sajjad family in fighting for such a ruling. Its secretary, Mohammad Quraishi, refutes suggestions that it is a licence for paedophilia.

He says, in their community, it is not a problem for an older man to marry a girl shortly after her puberty but says the practice is rare.

Happy reflections

Ali Asghar runs a liberal Muslim group in the town, the Confederation of Voluntary Organisations. He opposes the custom of marrying at a young age, and says it is often connected with poverty and lack of education.

Ali Asghar of the Confederation of Voluntary Organisations.
Ali Asghar: Against young marriages

He says bodies like the Muslim Personal Law Board have too narrow an interpretation of the Koran and the other sources of Muslim law.

"What the Koran said was, for both for girls and boys to be married when they're ready for it. And when they are ready for it doesn't mean just when they are physically ready for it. When they are ready to face life," he explains.

Fatima Mehjabin's mother, Wajid un-Nisa, married when she was 13 years old.

She looks back on her life and thinks she may have benefited from waiting a little longer.

Wajid says: "After I left school I actually felt I could have happily studied longer. But I only felt that after I left. At 13, when I married, I felt fine."

National issue

Any of the Muslim boys who live and play in Indian villages could become a bridegroom tomorrow if Fatima and Muazzamil win their case.

Campaigners against lowering the marriage age say it would rob both boys and girls of vital freedoms.

But Muazzamil wants to legitimise his own marriage and let other Muslims follow suit, from the age of puberty.

He says: "The case we've been fighting so long has become a national issue. And, God willing, we will win it and Muslims all over India will be able to follow Sharia law."

See also:

14 May 02 | South Asia
24 Oct 01 | South Asia
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