Photograph courtesy Sri Lanka Brief

In Sri Lanka, the age of marriage for Muslims girls is 12 years old. We are currently having a discussion on raising it to 18 to be on par with the rest of the country. This proposal has been met with stubborn resistance from the clergy body All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) which appears to have appointed itself as the sole authority to declare a ‘yea or nay’ decision with regard to this and other reforms pertaining to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. I find it puzzling, that either they or any other Muslim living in Sri Lanka would find such a proposal un-Islamic. We are not living in the 7th century. Times have changed vastly, when looking at how we live our lives. If we have embraced other changes that technology has brought, then wouldn’t it be obvious that the rules and regulations that may have existed during the time of our Prophet, as per the custom and culture of the country would also have to change?

In ancient societies, pubescence was the age of marriage. Even as far back as 1275 there is a documented instance in England, when Sir Edward Coke determined that the age of marriage was the age of consent. At that time the age of marriage was 12. Life expectancy in many primitive and medieval societies was shorter, compared with today. Men had a life expectancy of between 30 and 50 years; and with so many women dying either through illness or after childbirth, it would have been surprising if they lived even that long. Therefore, it would have been considered practical in many ancient societies to consider marriage as being acceptable once the boy and girl hit puberty. With a few variations, the trend of setting the age of marriage at 12 would continue for a few centuries. The world evolves, often for the better. In Europe, many societies were starting to differentiate between being a child and an adult by the eighteenth century, and with this development, concern grew to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of the child. We are now in the twenty-first century and although the average age of marriage varies from country to country, it is consistently higher than it has ever been before. In Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Niger, Iran, Palestine, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the minimum age of marriage for girls is 15. In most other countries, the age of marriage for girls fluctuates between 16 and 18 with China being at the high end of the spectrum having 20/22 as the minimum age for marriage, for women and men.

In Sri Lanka, under civil law, the age of marriage is 18 for both men and women but under personal law, Muslim girls can be married as young as 12 and I believe Muslim boys can get married once they reach puberty. While I have never heard of a Muslim boy getting married at the onset of puberty, I have indeed heard of several cases of girls being married at 12 and personally knew one such girl who was married off at 12 to a 21 year old man. Currently there is a request to raise the age of marriage for Muslim girls to 18 to be on par with the rest of the country. While most of us may think that it is a fairly reasonable request, there is great resistance from the Muslim community, verbalised almost always by men. Recently, the ACJU, a body of Muslim male clerics made an outrageous statement endorsing the marriage of a Sri Lankan girl below the age of 12, and refusing to support the suggestion that the age of marriage be raised from 12 to 18.

As a Muslim woman, I am curious to know why there is such resistance to raising the age of marriage for Muslim females and what exactly Muslim men think of Muslim women. Many of the Muslim men I spoke to, dismissed the endorsement of the ACJU. Perhaps, because child-marriage could never happen to them, or they belonged to a sphere of society that does not practice such marriages, they could afford to be cavalier about the situation. Some men were genuinely concerned and whole-heartedly supported the reform but felt there was little they could do to change the status quo. For me, that is not the point. Child-marriage is a very real problem for all Sri Lankan Muslim girls simply because it can happen to all of them, and does happen to some of them.

I understand that an extremely contentious point for those trying to reform the age of marriage is that our very own Prophet Muhammad married Ayesha bint Abu Bakr, supposedly at the age of six and consummated that marriage when she was nine. Let’s take a moment to analyse that hadith. The hadith is reported in both Sahih Buhari and Sahih Muslim. Imam Buhari was born in 810 AD and Imam Muslim was born in 821 AD. Ayesha bint Abu Bakr died in 678 AD. Her birth year is unknown. We must remember that every Hadith in existence was compiled at least six generations from the time the Prophet of Islam had passed away. To reinforce my point, not a single scholar who either reported the Hadith or compiled the Hadith had ever met the Prophet Muhammad or his companions or his wives. In that light, isn’t it fairly credible that Ayesha bint Abu Bakr might have been older? My own mother is unsure at what age her mother got married.

For me, this dogmatic stance of allowing children to be married off under the guise of religion is extremely suspect. Our prophet also married many widows. The Quran itself constantly advises its believers to look after widows, for in a patriarchal society widows too need protection. Why is it that Muslim clerics of Sri Lanka do not require all Muslim men to follow the hallowed footsteps of our Prophet in all of his marriages? He first married Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid a widow fifteen years his senior when he was 25. It was a monogamous marriage. Upon her death he married another widow, Sawdah bint Zam’ah and while he was still married to Sawdah, he married Ayesha bin Abu Bakr at the alleged age of 6, then he married the widows Hafsah bint Umar, Zaynab bint Khuzaymah, and Umm Salamah bint Abu Umayyah then the divorcee Zaynab bint Jahsh, then the prisoner of war and daughter of a tribal chief Juwariyah bint al-Harith, then another divorcee Umm Habibah bint Abu Sufiyan, then another prisoner of war who was also the daughter of a tribal chief Safiyyah bint Huyay, then Maymunah bint al-Harith who had divorced her first husband and was widowed by her second husband and finally Mariyah the slave girl gifted by the Archbishop of Alexandria to the Prophet. Of all our Prophet’s wives, only one could have been a virgin the others were either widows or divorcees – an idea that speaks volumes about the Prophet’s regard for virginity.

It is evident that Muslim men of Sri Lanka, endorsed by clerics choose selectively on the example they wish to follow of our Prophet in his marriages. This brings us to the question of whether they really endorse the spirit of Islam regarding Muslim women.

For this we have to consider two questions: What is marriage in current times, and what is childhood in current times? Is marriage just for sex and procreation or is it for something more? I would like to think that like many other aspects of society, marriage too has evolved. My personal view of marriage is that it is a vital component of our lives, giving us companionship, friendship, love, and support.  And what of childhood? If we look at the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the age of criminal responsibility was just seven years old. Children were expected to know the difference between right and wrong and fifteen and sixteen year olds were executed for crimes such as housebreaking, stealing, highway robbery and forging a will. But today, one would be appalled at the severity of the punishment for such crimes. Just as the notion of childhood has developed, the concept of marriage too has evolved.

For the sake of argument, marriage between a 12 year old Muslim girl and a 14 year old Muslim boy might be more compatible than a 12 year old Muslim girl and an 18 year old Muslim boy. However, an 18 year old Muslim girl might have more in common with a 24 year old Muslim boy, despite the same six year gap, because her mind and body would have had time to develop, mature and grow to be a reasonable adult. If the community has deemed that a boy younger than 18 is not suitable to be given in marriage, why is the yardstick different for a Muslim girl? She has all the same traits as a Muslim boy, except that she is capable of bearing children, and he is not capable of bearing children. Which means the sad fact is that perhaps the Muslim community has reduced Muslim females to just that. Baby bearing machines.

I would like everyone in my community, to give some thought to raising the age of marriage of Muslim girls to 18 years old. Perhaps the community needs to do some reflection inwardly. Many men insist they will not allow their sisters or daughters to be given in marriage at 12. They insist that education is important for both boys and girls. And yet, they are publicly silent on this issue.

Regardless of what clerics and narrow minded men and women might say, regardless of how they may manipulate religious texts, regardless of how they insist it is our identity, I think it is important to look at the Islamic spirit. Why on earth would a faith that ensured women’s dignity and rights centuries ago, treat women today as if they are sub-human and at the mercy of men. That was perhaps how women were treated in pre-Islamic Arabia. Have we gone back to that dark age, here in Lanka?

There is nothing un-Islamic about raising the age of marriage to one where the woman will be a willing partner, support and friend to a man who is compatible with her not only in age but in reason, likes, dislikes and life. There is nothing un-Islamic about raising the age of marriage so that there is time for a girl child to have a childhood, complete her education and earn a qualification for a career if she wants it. There is nothing un-Islamic about raising the age of marriage so that a woman is mature enough to be a mother, to raise productive and good children, giving them a home that is safe, secure and happy. Instead, what is un-Islamic is to allow the age of marriage for Sri Lankan Muslim girls to remain at 12. Muslims, don’t be afraid to raise your voice.

The time is now.


Editors note: For other articles and content we have carried on this issue, including compelling and exclusive video testimony from women, click here.