Underage marriage among Muslims has ignited a debate in Kerala,with the communitys most influential organisation vowing to get legitimacy for the practice while political parties and womens groups have said it would be a setback when Muslim girls have been making strides in education.
It was triggered by a government effort to ratify underage marriages that have already taken place,because many such couples were finding it difficult to get their marriages registered. In June,the social welfare department,run by the Indian Union Muslim League in the UDF government,issued a circular asking local bodies to allow registration of marriages of girls below 18 and men below 21.
Political parties and Muslim womens organisations alleged this would promote child marriage,forcing the government to amend the circular. Under the new circular,underage marriages only before June 28,2013,could be registered under the Kerala Registration of Marriages (Common) Rules 2008.
The cutoff offended Muslim organisations led by Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema,which controls the majority of mahallus in the state. Another recent event has upset these organisations. A minor girl,brought up in an orphanage,had been married off to an Arabian citizen and divorced him a few weeks later. Subsequently,the police cracked down on child marriage,raided several mahallus and arrested the orphanages office-bearers.
Outraged clerics who have pledged to fight for legitimacy say underage marriages are not common but sometimes inevitable. We are not promoting underage marriages, says Musthafa Mundupara,who is with Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema and is general secretary of the state coordination committee for the protection of Muslim personal law. But certain situations may demand such marriages. The Shariah law allows Muslim girls to marry when they attain puberty.
He cites the example of romantic affairs,which he says Islam does not allow. If a minor girl elopes or falls in love,we have no option but marriage. The government stand makes such marriages illegal and the parents liable to face criminal cases, he says,adding it is against the rights of minorities as enshrined in the Constitution.
The Muslim League is part to the coordination committee but its girls wing,Haritha,is against underage marriage. Let girls take the decision. The clerics have not heard the girls before pushing their agenda, says Haritha general secretary Fathima Thahiliya.
Mundupara says the views of youth organisations and political parties are irrelevant. We have the support of the community and the majority of mahallu committees.
Trends show many lower- and lower-middle-class Muslim families tend to marry off their daughters during or soon after class XII around age 17 or just over the legal limit. The grooms are often semi-skilled youths who have migrated to the Middle East.
If your daughter is not good at studies and waits to reach 18 or 20,grooms may treat them as unwanted and they may never get a proposal, says Muhammed Kareem,who had married off his daughter during her class XII exam. Hence we are forced to marry off daughters during or soon after XII,but we register minor marriages only after they reach 18 to avoid legal issues.
A higher secondary teacher at a Muslim school in Malappuram says a good number of his girls would have been married by the end of XII. He cites a positive: more and more brides are returning to class.
Among those who take up higher studies,the trend is to marry young,if not while underage. When Muslim girls join MBBS,there wont be anyone married. But the majority of them get married by the fourth or fifth year of the course, says Dr Sadasivan Pillai,dean of a medical college run by Muslim Educational Society in Perinthalmanna.
Calicut University in Muslim-dominated Malappuram district recently introduced maternity leave for MCA students. Pregnancy had earlier forced many brilliant students to take supplementary exams,performance in which is not counted when deciding ranks. The university plans to extend this to other professional courses.
Mundupara says educated girls are struggling to find grooms. The number of Muslim girls opting for higher education is higher than that of boys,who still go to the Middle East to work, says Mundupara,also general secretary of a Sunni youth organisation. Many highly qualified Muslim girls have to wait for a suitable proposal.