At court in Basra today is a young girl called Zahra. She’s only 12. But she’s not because of a custody case or for some childish misdemeanour. Zahra is here getting a divorce.
And every time a certain bearded man walks past, she looks scared and seems to try to hide behind her mother. Zahra identifies the man as one of her uncles. His glaring looks frighten her, she says, and begins to explain why.
Her father died when she was younger and her uncle wanted Zahra to marry his son. “He tried to pressure my mother into it,” she explains. Zahra refused but she was married in absentia: “My mother told me that they paid one of the lawyers and he formally finalized the marriage, despite the fact that we had already filed another suit against the marriage.”
Zahra lived with her new husband for a year but then fled back to her mother’s home. Now that she has filed for divorce, her uncles are threatening her. “I was hurt many times,” Zahra says, softly crying. “But I won’t drop this lawsuit unless they allow me to divorce.”
Rawa, 14, has another similar story of forced marriage. “My parents pressured me into it,” she says. “We’re not connected at all and we fight every day. I would have left him long ago if I wasn’t pregnant.”
Rawa is skinny and she doesn’t look pregnant yet. But she is one of many local children who have found themselves in the house of a husband they didn’t agree to marry, in a sexual relationship, responsible for a household and about to be responsible for a baby.
Even though traditional Islamic law – Sharia – doesn’t actually permit marriage unless both individuals consent and the Islamic religion suggests that both individuals be physically and emotionally ready for marriage (and in the woman’s case, have reached puberty and be menstruating), some families will marry off their young daughters without their approval. Marriage contracts are simply made in the presence of male guardians, rather than the girls themselves.
One local religious leader says that a widowed or a divorced woman must be consulted before a marriage whereas a virgin girl must accept what her family tells her.
In Iraq the law on this comes under Iraqi Personal Status Law and says that both parties should be at least 18 years of age. A judge can authorise the marriage of an individual who is aged between 15 and 18 too. And on the whole, while forced marriage is not explicitly banned, Iraqi law also says that individuals cannot be made to marry without their permission. Any such marriage would be considered a forced one –unless it has been consummated.
And as local judge, Mohammed al-Abboudi, notes, quite often, the marriage contracts are signed off on by clerics. “That’s why some girls get married when they reach the age of 12. From the Sharia perspective, this marriage is valid,” al-Abboudi says. “But it’s not legal because it’s been concluded outside a court.”
Of course many middle class Iraqis would far prefer that their daughters finish their education before marrying. But for the less educated and less well off Iraqis, who may well have lost male providers in one of the many violent conflicts the country has been involved in, marrying the girls off is often the only way to balance the household budgets.
Tribal culture plays a big part in this and in conservative rural societies, it’s hard to change the entrenched ways of thinking. As one older woman, Alaa, says, she got married when she was just 11 and she still doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
“I was playing with my toys when they told me to go with the man who was standing next to the door,” she recalls. “I was so scared I went and hid in a cupboard. But then my mother came to me and started telling me about the benefits of marriage. So I did get married and, thanks to God, I now have daughters and sons who are also married, after they graduated from university. I’m a grandmother now,” she says proudly.
“But many of these girls end up divorced and psychologically stressed,” says local human rights activist, Safaa al-Tamimi, who notes that it’s been almost impossible to end the practice of underage marriage. She had been following one divorce case, she says, and the sight of young, pregnant girl, who should have been at school, had horrified her.
“There are grave health hazards for children who are too physically immature to be having sex,” al-Tamimi said.
This story was prepared as part of the Media Academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq.The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Wahid Ghanem and the editor was Mirvat Adwan.