By Molly Lower
On November 19, Women’s Voices Now co-hosted with the International MA in Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University a screening and group discussion on child marriage in Afghanistan. As part of an international gender-based violence awareness campaign, the screening sought to inform this year’s students about the complicated causes and ramifications of child marriage. The two films shown were “Half Value Life” and “Male and Female,” first- and second-place winners, respectively, from WVN’s 2011 film festival that also touch on the theme of WVN’s upcoming film festival, Women Bought and Sold: Voices United Against Violence.
“Half Value Life” follows the work of Marya Bashir, a female public prosecutor working in Herat province of Afghanistan, as she hears cases of domestic abuse from child brides seeking to prosecute their husbands. “Male and Female” is a humorous animated short portraying the pressure women face to bear sons to their husbands, and the perception that a woman’s societal value is intertwined with her reproductive abilities. Attendees were asked to prepare for the screening by reading the March 2013 issue of The WVoice on the division between religious law and cultural practice regarding the mahr, or bride price, in Afghanistan.
The students’ audible reactions to the gruesome images of domestic abuse in “Half Value Life” were a harbinger of the emotional and vibrant discussion that was to follow. The collective sense of injustice was palpable in the room as we picked apart the supportive structures that enable and perpetuate child marriage in Afghanistan. Both civil and religious law are recognized in the country, creating a tension between the Shari‘a requirement that a girl reach puberty before marriage and the civil law that recognizes age 16 as the legal minimum marriage age for women. In practice, the legal marriage age for women is widely disregarded, and girls are pulled from their families and denied further access to education to be wed and/or sold.
While some parents sell their daughters into marriage to pay off a debt, most in Afghanistan nevertheless benefit from the income that the mahr provides. However, the cultural understanding of the mahr contradicts its original intent in Shari‘a law. In Islam, the mahr was intended to be a short-term financial safety net for a bride; a sum of money that she herself would receive upon marriage to ensure her well-being should the marriage fail. In Afghanistan today, the mahr is given by the groom’s family to the parents of the bride, and has assumed the cachet of measuring the bride’s worth in society. Though Afghani law requires a mahr that is paid to the bride for a Muslim marriage to be valid, this law is not enforced, and Afghani custom continues to disenfranchise women. Ironically, the poverty that often compels parents to sell their daughters into marriage, independent of a mahr, often deprives the daughter of further access to education, which could allow her not only to enhance her personal well-being but also to challenge such widespread misconceptions as the ones that perpetuate the modern practice of mahr in Afghanistan
The effects of child marriage are widely recognized as negative, with male religious leaders claiming some positive outcomes. Of the few cited benefits of child marriage are the girl’s protection from illegal behavior such as prostitution, the girl’s increased economic status, and a greater amount of time to bear children and enjoy their company. The negative implications of child marriage are more numerous and pervasive. In addition to destroying further educational opportunities, child marriage places undue emotional and physical stress on the girl. Not only does she lose parental influence and support very early in life, she is asked to take on domestic chores and to care for children (either hers or her husband’s from a previous marriage). Aside from the enormous responsibility of childcare, the physical stress that pregnancy and childbirth places on a girl’s body threatens her health, sometimes leading to infertility and maternal mortality. Also, many girls are often domestically abused by their husbands, and may be murdered in an honor killing if they attempt to run away. Some commit suicide.
As with all dissections of social injustice, the conversation eventually settled on the unavoidable question: “So what?” Yes, we have informed ourselves about child marriage in Afghanistan. Yes, we have carved out time in our day to talk about it, show our outrage, shake our heads in disbelief. But what do we do about it? The most common answer I hear, and provide, is to raise awareness. The more people know about this violation of human rights, the greater the momentum of change. And I fully agree with this assessment—I would not have hosted this screening if I did not believe that raising awareness about issues of social injustice had immeasurable and far-reaching positive effects. But when I watch these films, or hear stories from the audience about government directives to not interfere in tribal affairs to the point of witnessing two women hanged, I feel furious and powerless. Change takes time, especially when it is culture that must change. But I am not a patient person, and in matters of human rights, I don’t count patience as a virtue. I hope you will take the time to learn about child marriage in Afghanistan—there’s no time like the present.