My first piece on the Malaysian legal blog, Loyar Burok:
Siti Maryam Mahmood 14 (right) and Abdul Manan 23 (left), whose marriage has triggered a call for fresh debate on child marriage. (Source: http://www.straitstimes.com)
Underage marriages are not simply perversions of marital norms but an index of our unequal society.
The news concerning the marriage of a 14-year old girl and 23-year old man reveals a thing or two about what can be expected of young women and of our society as a whole. While it is chilling enough to witness the unflinching approval from the state honcho of Islamic affairs regarding this matter, it also raises the question about the power of parental consent that made the union happen.
The notoriously unchallengeable maxim that “parents know best” seems eerily at work here, in that the teenage girl’s marriage becomes apparently acceptable because her parents have expressed their consent. But is that tantamount to the girl expressing consent as well? The young bride appears to exert little to no voice or agency because being a child, she is deemed to know no better both legally and in lore. But then, she would be expected to shoulder wifely duties pertaining to marriage, children, and the household that even most fully-grown women struggle with, all while still on the cusp of adolescence.
If anyone is wondering why there is such an outrage over what seems on the surface a marriage between two willing individuals who smile for the press, then they have little concern over the future of the child bride, and of future child brides who will take the cue from this precedent that has come with an official stamp of approval. If there was a more depressing portrait of unequal power relations in a marriage, it would be between a girl and an adult man. She would be beholden to a man who will have more leverage in deciding if she finishes school, enters university, and gains work experience.
If there was an unmistakable example of property in human form being exchanged between two parties who have power, it would be between the parents of the girl and her “lawful” husband. From this transaction, not only will the man have purchased her chastity, but also the opportunity to police her transformation from girl to woman, her budding sexual awareness, and quite probably, her reproductive choices as well – all done under the guise of her pseudo-protection from other men and ironically, “illicit” sexual relations.
If this piece sounds disrespectful towards a couple who may really be in love and to what may potentially be a happy marriage free from the abuse of male power and privilege, then I will contend it is. However, we must remember that the men representing the voice of State morality and the whole shebang who see nothing wrong in this are actually hard at work to ensure we perform our circumscribed gender roles. Their approval are in tacit complicity with the inter-connected oppressions that can affect all women and girls. It sends out a message that not every girl’s potential and future of self-determination should be valued.
That child marriages happen at all in Malaysia with the express permission of the State and family remain one of the many, if more extreme symptoms of an unequal society. They are not social anomalies. In a society that privileges the heterosexual man in every respect and routinely corners women into limited career prospects and the imagined threat of spinsterhood, it comes to little surprise that for women, marriage is an attractive escape route out of desperation. This is where parents sometimes step in: to “protect” the child from the perils of single womanhood, parents would resort marrying her off. In the end, the ever-narrowing space for agency that is left to the teenage bride is used to make the best out of her situation.
It is little wonder why the popular saying, “silence denotes consent” that serves less as an illusion of feminine modesty than the blotting out of female agency has such enduring power in our culture. Silence is a powerful tool to keep both women and children (girls, in particular) in their place. While not every woman and child are subject to silence by authority, the threat of being reduced as property and voiceless objects is only rarely very far.