The irrational fear that drives underage marriage

Mustafa Abdel Ghany at Bankstown Local Court on February 26, 2015 in Sydney, Australia.

Mustafa Abdel Ghany at Bankstown Local Court on February 26, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Last week, 19-year-old Muslim-Australian man Mustafa Abdel-Ghany was charged with "marrying a person of non-marriageable age." He is the first man to be so charged by the Child Abuse Squad, which alleges he wed a 15-year-old girl in an Islamic ceremony.

While Ghany has pleaded not guilty, given that police became aware of the relationship after the girl presented at a hospital thinking she was suffering a miscarriage, it certainly doesn't look too good for him.

As someone from a Muslim background this story fills me with immense sadness and frustration. As a child of first generation Lebanese immigrants, I certainly felt an expectation (though not force) to marry relatively young -- a pressure that I resisted.

While I would have hoped things would be different for the current generation of teenagers, social norms dictate that like many other young Muslims, young Lebanese Muslims also continue to get married while still in their late teens. And many of them do so willingly.

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First, let me say that when we talk about a "Lebanese community," we are actually talking about several communities that exist along sectarian lines. The Sunnis, Shias, Alawis, and so on, all form their own distinct communities, and even within these groups, there will be some who are less religious, less community-minded, and less traditional than others.

This means that any attempt to examine why underage marriages still occur will involve generalisations that do not apply to all. While I know of some teenagers getting married or engaged in the Alawi community, for instance, I have never come across or heard of anyone marrying under the legal age or against their will.

When I find myself struggling to understand why such young people go along with this, I remember what it is like to be a young person navigating life in the "permissive" west from a Middle Eastern family. I remember the desire to be just like the other kids but the equally strong need to please my parents. I recall the gripping fear of bringing "disgrace" to the family, which, in these close-knit communities is often regarded as a fate worse than death.

In such a context, it's not surprising that many people find it less agonising to embrace societal norms, rather than suffer the consequences of challenging them.

That said, it's one thing for 19-year-olds to marry each other, quite another for a 19-year-old to marry a 15-year-old. However, when seeking to understand why parents would allow or pressure their children to be married so young, one doesn't actually have to search too hard. The answer is far closer than many bewildered onlookers would realise.

So complete is the othering of Muslims that the west doesn't perceive that it has the same attitudes to sex, particularly when it comes to women, albeit with different manifestations.

I am talking, of course, of the sexual double standard that demonises female sexuality in the western culture. The negative perception of women's sexuality that sees women labelled with slurs like "slut," and blamed for their own rapes, is the same one that leaves Muslim parents so afraid of their daughter becoming sexually active that they seek to marry her off at the earliest opportunity, with little thought given to the ramifications this presents to her future. Many genuinely believe that sex before marriage is the worst possible thing that can happen to their daughters.

Ironically, living in a western society may actually make young Muslim girls more, not less, vulnerable as parents fear the effects of living in a cultural environment where premarital sex is the norm. The more common sex becomes in the wider culture, the more some Muslim parents will feel the need to take action to avert their daughters from partaking in it.

Even more ironic, and perhaps surprising to many parents, is the fact that young Muslims are not so different from others their age- many of them are already sexually active. The taboo against sex just means they hide it from their parents, with some going as far as to have hymen reconstructions, all of which only serves to keep the cycle going.

So how do we tackle this?

First, parents must be encouraged to see that there are many things worse than being unmarried and having sex. These include being divorced and viewed as "damaged goods," feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage, and missing out on an education and your youth because you raised children while barely out of your teens. These are all fates that many child and older teenage brides have suffered and they are not limited to Muslim communities. Indeed, child marriage persists from Guatemala to India to the United States.

Even more importantly, we have to find a way to overcome the global obsession with female purity that has done so much damage to women over the centuries. Until women are regarded as more valuable than their virginity, cases like Abdel-Ghany's will continue to occur and they will continue to shock us.