YEMEN: Islamic lawmaker decries child marriage ban as part of 'Western agenda'
The recent death of 13-year old Yemeni child bride Elham Assi, who reportedly bled to death last week after being tied down and forced to have sex with her 23-year-old husband, has sparked outrage among rights activists in Yemen.
They are now stepping up their lobbying efforts to push for the implementation of a child marriage ban.
But that may prove a daunting challenge since fierce opposition against a ban on child brides still runs high among some religious leaders and conservatives.
Sheik Mohammed Hamzi, an official of the Islamist Yemeni opposition party Islaah and the imam of the Al-Rahman mosque in the Yemeni capital of Sana, is one of those who staunchly opposes a legal ban on child marriage.
Although he emphasizes that a woman should not get married before she is physically and mentally ready and that she herself needs to accept the marriage, he believes a law that prohibits child marriage constitutes a rights violation.
“I am against the child marriage law because it restrains the freedom of others. When a certain age [for marriage] is set, it violates the rights of others. For example, imagine a young man of 13 or 14 years of age who wants to have sex. … This is a violation of his rights,” Sheik Hamzi told The Times in an interview at his Sana home last week.
Last week, representatives from various rights groups and independent activists met at the Women’ Media Forum, or WMF, in Sana to discuss ways to convince supporters of child marriage to back a proposal to set the mimum age for marriage at 17.
Lawmakers in February 2009 set the age limit for marriage at 17, but the law was repealed and returned to the Yemeni parliament's constitutional committee for review after some lawmakers objected to it and billed the law un-Islamic, according to the Associated Press. The committee is expected to make a final decision on the law later this month.
Two years ago, 9-year-old Yemeni child bride Nujoud Ali captured the world's attention and became a symbol of Yemen's child brides when she showed up in a Sana court and demanded a divorce from her 30-something husband.
Since then, several other cases of Yemeni child brides have been reported, and the issue also has been discussed and debated widely.
But Hazmi dismisses claims by rights groups that there is a problem with child marriages in his country. He said the child-bride cases that have been reported in the media were merely isolated incidents.
“Just ask my mother and sisters how many times they’ve found a little girl getting married at the marriages they’ve attended," he said. "Not many.”
The country's Ministry of Social Affairs, on the contrary, says child marriages are common in Yemen. According to a 2009 report by the ministry, a quarter of all females in Yemen marry before the age of 15.
To Hazmi, however, women's- and children's-rights activists are putting a few isolated cases of child marriage in the spotlight to rally support for the law.
"There is no problem here with child marriage," he said. "These cases of young girls getting married are exceptions. These organizations that are promoting for this law couldn’t find any examples except for those of Nujoud and Elham."
Hazmi said the groups that are campaigning for the law were harmful to the country, trying to promote a "Western agenda" in Yemen.
“It’s all a Western agenda they are following," he said. "They get paid from the West to make us to believe in Western culture. This is very bad because our culture is different here."
The best that could happen, in his opinion, is that the government shuts them down.
“No one wants to marry these women's-rights activists anyway," he said. "They’re just depressed that they are not married and jealous.”
Would he allow his own young daughters to be married?
"No," he says and looks at the two as they're scurrying around in the room. "At this age, I don’t want them married."
-- Alexandra Sandels in Sana, Yemen
Photos: Sheik Mohammed Hazmi is one of those who opposes a ban on child brides in Yemen. Credit: Khaled Hilaly / Special to The Times. Lower image: Yemeni child divorcee Nujod Ali outside her home in Sana. Credit: Katia Jarjoura