Maryam & Manan: What Underage Marriages Say About Our Society

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.

5 thoughts on “Maryam & Manan: What Underage Marriages Say About Our Society

  1. While I personally do not encourage such early marriages, I am disturbed at the level of ‘nosiness’ Malaysians are becoming. This is a personal choice. The bride, and groom, had both made clear that they willingly enter into this marriage. If they encounter problems in the future, it’s their responsibility. Who are we to regulate and speculate about their personal choices. Should the public be given the right to stick their noses into personal lives of individuals? Hell, no!

    The marriage was legal. The law states that Muslims under the age of 14 must obtain a court permission in order to marry (in addition to parental consent). In this case, they had fulfilled all legal requirements for the marriage, in addition of openly expressing their willingness to enter the union.

    How is it civilly acceptable for the public to comment on the decision? Don’t anyone in Malaysia understand the principles of ‘Separation of Power’? The Judiciary must be isolated. It must never be influenced directly by anyone, and that includes the public. The whole of Malaysia was in uproar when it was found that V.K. Lingam was meddling with the Judiciary. I ask all nosy Malaysians, how different was what he did and what you are doing now?

    Court decisions are sometimes wrong, granted. However the civil course of action is to apply for a retrial. And only those directly concerned can make that request. In this particular case, nobody, not the bride, not the groom, not the parents had made such application. So who are we to make so much noise over this matter. What legal right do we have? And what legal right does the family have?

    Openly challenging a court decision can be considered contempt of court.

    The husband is legally compelled to provide for the wife. He has a legal obligation to recognize and provide for any issues from the marriage. The wife also enjoy a respected position in society, even if the couple eventually part ways. This is in contrast to sex out of wedlock. The man is not legally bound to provide for the bastard (this is a legal term, without derogatory intentions), and the woman. The woman is judged (societally) as a loose woman. The bastard is sometimes just left for dead. ‘Nosy Malaysians’ should make more comments about these lot. Nobody is bound by law to provide for them. In contrast to the 14 year old girl and any child of hers, who her husband is legally bound to provide for.

    Should we regulate all decisions made by the young? Should we deprive them of the opportunity of learning from their mistakes? Should we take away their agency and responsibility, and leave all the decision making to ‘Nosy Malaysians.’ Just because some “adult” think they know better, they feel that they have the right to interfere with the personal lives of others. Hypocritical.

    14 year olds, and other young Malaysians, beware. Parents of 14 year olds, and other young Malaysians, beware. ‘Nosy Malaysians’ is out to jeopardize your liberty.

    • 14-year olds and other young Malaysian, beware. Parents of 14 year olds, and other young Malaysians, beware. Beware of scare-mongering Malaysians out to cause annoyance.

      • Beware of those prying into your private lives. Beware of those trying to infringe on your legal rights.

        Non-nosy raised some very sound arguments. I am sure the writer will agree that she wouldn’t want public sentiment to guide her through life.

        In that respect, Maryam is remarkable. She actually went against the tide. She did not succumb to public pressure, as she knew her decision was well within her rights. Way to put the busybodies in their rightful place!

        And whatever it is Maryam, we wish you all the best.

  2. sophia,

    “Non-nosy raised some very sound arguments. I am sure the writer will agree that she wouldn’t want public sentiment to guide her through life.”

    Why wouldn’t I want “public sentiment” to “guide” me through life? I might learn some good advice, research, and statistics to “guide” me.

    “In that respect, Maryam is remarkable. She actually went against the tide. She did not succumb to public pressure, as she knew her decision was well within her rights. Way to put the busybodies in their rightful place!”

    Where is that “rightful place” I wonder hhmm? Well, to be fair, Maryam’s decision to marry anyway shows that people’s opinions in the end don’t matter. Besides, didn’t we all know about her and Manan AFTER they got married? The damage’s been done, the “busybodies” can’t do anything to sway her decision.

    You entirely missed the point of my article, and as non-nosy above, and because I’m not really feeling particularly charitable today, I might also add that you’re both quite small-minded to say that writing opinions about child marriages is merely being nosy. Maryam represented a new precedent for other girls to marry young, have young and potentially have physical complications and life complications later on when they decide to have good careers. If these issues are not worth raised in public discourse, then people like you and non-nosy don’t give a flying fuck about the wellbeing of young women in Malaysia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s