Nujood Ali
Photograph: Joe Sheffer for the Guardian

Spoiler Alert: Child Marriage Has No Place in Islam

Bride, 8, dies of injuries on wedding night in Yemen. Rawan dies hours after marrying a man more than five times her age.”

This issue of child marriage is one that really boils my blood. As a 21-year-old, I’m terrified of marriage, and to think elementary school-aged girls are forced into a relationship with a stranger multiple times their age is gut-wrenching.

In one of my classes at university, I wrote a paper on child marriage, focusing on the case of Nujood Ali, a Yemeni girl married off at the raw age of 10 to a 30-year-old man. She gained global attention in 2008 when she ran away and demanded a divorce. A New York Times journalist describes Ali’s traumatic first night as an unprepared wife:

“The trouble started on the first night, when her 30-year-old husband, Faez Ali Thamer, took off her clothes as soon as the light was out. She ran crying from the room, but he caught her, brought her back and forced himself on her. Later, he beat her as well.”

– Robert F. Worth

People are quick to point fingers at Islam as the cause of this problem, and that adds fuel to the fire. Girls are often forced into these marriages by their families in an attempt to escape poverty, uphold family honor, or stick to tribal custom. It’s not something done religiously, and treating it as such distracts from addressing the real problem.

In fact, according to a contemporary Hanafi scholar:

“It is incorrect for parents to force or impose on their children to marry a person of their [the parents’] choice,” and “it is the child’s Shari right to decide his or her marriage partner.”

While this may very well apply to marriageable adults, not children, the mufti continues:

“Their [the parents’] advice is based on love…If the child is not inclined towards the choice of the parents after due consideration, then the parents should respect that and not force their child against his/her will.”

– Mufti Ebrahim Desai

In the case of Nujood Ali, it was clear she was uncomfortable with the idea of marriage — that she was scared, uninformed, and unwarned of the responsibilities and rights a wife held, yet she was entered into marriage anyway.

It’s true that Islam gives the father certain powers as the head of the household. However, power is not necessarily a good thing. More than anything else, the power of a father in Islam obligates him to fulfill his responsibilities to his family. A father is expected to provide for his wife and children not only in terms of food, water, and clothing — but morals, education, and happiness. A father is entrusted to do what is best for his child out of love and wisdom.

When a father becomes careless in his decisions and destructive with his priorities, like worrying about the reputation of his last name more than his daughter’s happiness and safety, he is held accountable with God, and on top of that, very real and earthly problems surface.

Child marriage occurs around the world across countries, cultures, and religions. In addition to Nujood Ali’s native Yemen, child marriages take place in India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia. Some of these countries even have legal marriage ages set for men and women; however, they are seldom enforced, and ceremonies are held in secret.

Since Ali was granted a divorce and even a book deal, it seemed like she was a glimpse of hope for other young girls. However, things aren’t as they seem. Until we address this issue for what it is, it will only continue to persist.