ISTANBUL—Development and child-protection advocates say the persistence of early marriage in the Middle East harms the educational prospects and emotional well-being of girls. But in some countries, conservative lawmakers are actively working to roll back legal restrictions on the practice.
When she was 13, Farah Ismail’s father arranged her marriage to a 30-year-old business associate who had helped the family financially when they fell on hard times.
“I was forced to leave my studies in eighth grade and, after marriage, my life was hard,” said Ismail, who is now 22 and living in a majority-Shia neighborhood in Baghdad. “Before this marriage I was a good student and made plans with my best friend Shaima to become a dentist. I lost my education. Even though I was divorced just two months into the marriage, my father refused to let me go back to school, saying that I brought shame on the family.”
Decades ago, secular governments in Iraq and other countries in the region enacted minimum-age restrictions on marriage, with the goal of improving the status of women, particularly by giving young women time and opportunity to pursue a higher education.
But in recent years, Shia traditionalists in Iraq and Sunni fundamentalists in Egypt and Turkey have been taking action to try to lift those restrictions, and have been speaking out in favor of earlier marriage for girls.
In a preliminary vote in November, religious lawmakers in Iraq passed a measure that would enable clerics to decide the age at which individual girls could marry.
The law would empower clerics to allow girls in most of the Iraqi Shia communities to marry as soon as they begin menstruating (around age 12 on average but as young as 9). The legal marriage age in Iraq is currently 18, although a judge can reduce that age to 15 in special circumstances.
Only 13 of the 170 lawmakers present for the preliminary vote opposed the measure.
Faced with objections from the United Nations, the European Union and United States, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, blocked the bill from going to a final vote. But the bill’s supporters have vowed to reintroduce the measure after parliamentary elections in May.
“The law would protect girls from rape and harassment by giving them the security provided by a husband and the blessings of religious matrimony,” insisted Hamid Al-Khudhari, a sponsor of the measure.
Critics, meanwhile, blasted the proposal.
“The law violates international human-rights conventions, is humiliating to women and enables pedophilia,” said Siham Wandi, a former Iraqi diplomat and child-protection advocate.
But even without the legislation, child marriage has been on the rise in Iraq. In 1997, 15 percent of women wed before age 18, according to the Iraqi government. In 2016, that figure jumped to 24 percent, including nearly 5 percent who married before age 15.
The trend is similar in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late last year signed the “mufti law,” which allows religious officials to perform marriages once males and females reach puberty. The most recent U.N. statistics from Turkey show that 15 percent of women in the country marry before the age of 18.
“I believe we should support girls attending university instead of forcing children who are neither physically or psychologically ready for the responsibilities of marriage,” said Irem Ozorman, an Istanbul bank accountant, whose views reflect the city’s typically more secular outlook, in contrast to those of Erdogan’s supporters in Turkey’s rural heartland. “Unfortunately, early marriage is increasingly common in eastern and rural Turkey, just like in the Arab countries,” she added.
In Egypt, fundamentalists have taken to the airwaves, calling on lawmakers to lower the marriage age for girls. “It’s unjust to make the age of marriage identical for men and women,” said Mahmoud Bahi El-Din, a leader of Ma’zun Sharia, a group of Sunni clerics, on the “Ana al-Watan” (“I Am the Country”) program on Al Hadath TV in January.
“A girl’s womanhood develops early, so there should be at least a two-year difference between the bride and groom,” the imam said.
El-Din’s efforts are unlikely to gain traction with the government of President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who views early marriage as a threat to the county’s development goals, which include emphasizing the social and economic benefits of women’s education.
According to the United Nations, keeping girls in school reduces the likelihood of early marriage.
“Unicef and other international development agencies have partnered with the Egyptian government to expand access to basic education and close the gap between boys’ and girls’ enrollment,” said Nadra Zaki, a child-protection specialist with Unicef in Cairo. “The effort includes basic infrastructure improvements like better sanitation facilities and working with parents and educators to reduce harassment, to keep adolescent girls in school.”
Statistics bear out the difference that Egypt’s education-focused policies have made in limiting early marriage. While 44.4 percent of Egyptian women born between 1965 and 1969 were married before the age of 18, that figure dropped to 19 percent for girls born between 1990 and 1994, according to the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey.
“Early marriage remains a huge problem for uneducated women, for rural women, for poor women,” said Shereen El Feki of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
But there is a glimmer of hope.
“Our research shows changing attitudes among younger men in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine who increasingly view education for their daughters as being just as important as for their sons,” said El Feki, who was part of a team that conducted the International Men and Gender Equality Survey–Middle East and North Africa. “You see that they are moving toward what we would call a ‘companionate’ idea of marriage based on an international model of parenting, where it’s less an economic exchange and more partnership driven,” she said.
The trends don’t necessarily mean a big change in Arab societies, but they do illustrate evolving views on matrimony, El Feki added.
“It doesn’t mean decision-making is equal in the household and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t [male] spousal control—that happens all over the place,” she said. “But this model does not include a 30-year-old man marrying a 14-year-old girl.”