Saturday, September 7, 2013

Communication Failure: Yerima And The Issue Of The "Child" Brides

It is a sad thing to see interesting political discussions on Nigeria devolve into pointless name-calling and ethnic warfare. Some Nigerians clearly do not know how to separate ethno-sectarian concerns from robust and rational political discourse. But then again, perhaps this is because Nigerians really do view politics primarily from a clannish, sectarian outlook. Please let us be mature here.

Concerning Yerima, I think a number of people who have opposed him recently either do not actually understand what point he is making or if they do, clearly do not feel particularly disposed to grant him the right to those views. You can hate Yerima all you like, but there are many more like him in the National Assembly, and millions that reason like him all around Nigeria. He is a product of the system that he has found himself in, so lets recognize that fact. Here are some salient points to keep in mind:

1) Nigeria is a multi-religious country just like India. It is therefore very common to notice inter-religious violence and strife. In Nigeria's case, inter-religious clashes have also deviously mingled with ethnocentric agitations and strife to produce a toxic atmosphere where a little issue can literally ignite raw passions and violence. Nigeria is a boiling cauldron; a tinderbox, and it takes very little to generate explosive violence. It is because of these that the adopted constitution of Nigeria has been careful as it were to emphasize religious freedom. If people from wildly disparate belief systems are ever to get along in a multi-religious enclave like Nigeria, there needs to be no misapprehension about the fact that the faith and belief-systems of its radically different people must be protected. So Yerima was not wrong in reminding the National Assembly that it could contravene this fundamental principle when that legislative body was deliberating on what it means to be "of age".

2) It needs to be pointed out once again, that the genesis of the furor over Yerima's action in the National Assembly is not that Yerima and co-legislators wanted to "make the legal age of consent to be 13 years". Let me say this another way. A lot of people have misunderstood what actually happened. They thought, or were told, that these 35 northern senators have strong-armed the senate into officially making 13 the age of legal consent so that these law-makers can be content marrying their child wives. Permit me to say that this is an inaccurate rendering of events. The more correct scenario is that they were considering what it means for a woman to be "of age" especially as it concerns things like the renunciation of one's citizenship, acquisition of property, etc. In other words, at what age would the law consider a person technically qualified to have certain rights apply?

In some countries it is 18; in some, 16; heck in some places a girl is considered "of age" when she is only 14. The point here is that this number is arbitrary. They really could peg that age at any number they choose and that will become binding. Besides, as many people will have known by now, a person's physical age is not always reliable in making determinations about the person's degree of physical, mental, emotional or psychological maturity. Now, many lawmakers opted to peg this age at 18. This nearly passed until Yerima and other like-minded people present realized that if this is adopted, it may transgress some previously protected religious requirement. So what did Yerima actually propose? He proposed that this definition of what it means for a female to be considered "of age" also be stretched to include any female that is already married. This was adopted by the legislative body. Can you spot the difference between what Yerima did and what has been reported?

Let me spell it out. Senator Yerima may have married a 13 year old but he never actually pegged or suggested any specific age for young girls to be married or to be considered "of age" neither did he clamor for child-marriages to become binding on everybody. But you have to realize that in Muslim societies, there are countless thousands of girls as young as 13 or 14 who have become or who are in the process of becoming wives. Prophet Muhammad himself married someone much younger, so who is anybody to tell a Muslim that he cannot emulate Muhammad's own example? The state of maturity of these young girls cannot simply be determined abstractly by people who oppose Yerima, neither is it the case that the Muslim girls in question are necessarily opposed to what Yerima might suggest. So, what's the point? 13 or 14 year old unmarried girls are by Yerima's own definition excluded from being considered "of age" especially as it pertains to those responsibilities deliberated upon. This seems to make sense when you realize that since Muslims have been accustomed to early marriages for a long time, the young wife in that arrangement must need to be granted full rights over personal property, or to be the principal or grantor of a Power Of Attorney, to be the inheritor of property according to a Will, to have the power to renounce her citizenship, etc. The issue is much larger than just whether a 13 year old is considered fit for marriage. The marriage angle is thus a spin-off of the discussion generated by the disagreements over whether Sharia law stipulations regarding the possible marriage of very young girls-- and the recognition of such very young girls as being "of age"--should be respected under the national law.

3) So you do not think that a 13 year old girl should be considered old enough for marriage? That's fine. I agree with you. I think she still needs to grow both physically and mentally before getting into marriage. However, this is my personal conviction. Some other person may feel otherwise--heck some 13 year old girl raised in some culture may feel differently. But this is NOT what the members of the National Assembly were deciding. It is already understood that if you are NOT Muslim, and you are a 13 year old girl who clearly does not want to be married, you are protected by the law and cannot be forced into a marriage. The same applies to parents of  13 year old girls who clearly will never agree to marry off their precious young daughter away. I suspect the main reason is that these parents might consider their daughters to NOT be "of age". That is perfectly understandable, and Yerima and millions of other Muslims will have no quarrel with your decision.

4) A problem will arise therefore when you refuse to return that favor. A religiously-colored disagreement or violence will spontaneously erupt when you, an outsider to the Islamic faith, decide to impose your own set of values on MUSLIMS by ruling against their religiously acceptable rights of marrying these girls--especially when Muslim parents (or the particular Islam-indoctrinated 13 year old) have no problem with the union. They are not marrying you nor your 13 year old daughter or niece, so what's your own pound of beef?

5) Some human rights activists have embellished their "moral" outrage by  talking about health concerns like Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF), a urogenital fistula that is supposedly rampant in the North. This they attribute to the countless thousands of 13 year olds who are married. To hear them remonstrating, you may be forgiven to think that these girls are routinely and brutally getting raped. I want to suggest that this is not the case. VVF can affect both young and older women as it really is just an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina thus allowing for the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal tract. Indeed, VVF is more a problem that occurs during childbirth when prolonged labor causes the unborn child to press too tightly against the pelvis. It can affect both young and old women apparently as this is related to the size of the pelvis. In fact, let us not confound the issue by carping on women's health. Conscientious objectors are on good enough grounds to cite their moral compass as the source of their main objections to the idea of 13 or 14 year old brides.

6) Unless Islam is revised and followers made to understand that certain dictates contained therein are in hindsight incompatible with present day, 21st century morality, I suspect that this is one issue that will continue to rear its head. It is not very wise to sit back and verbally abuse Muslim men for this especially when you realize that a sizable number of the women in Islam do not necessarily find anything wrong with giving their daughters to marriage at such tender ages. If you want to see a drastic reduction in this, you have to convince Muslim men and women of goodwill to stand up and refuse to give their daughters' hand in marriage when such 13 or 14 year old girls still have some education to attain. Couched in such personal self-advancing terms, you are much more likely to gain co-operation than if you were to lash out at people over their belief systems or for practices that they have remorselessly indulged in for umpteen generations. It is either this, or you can flirt with the idea of limiting religious freedoms in Nigeria so that the governing bodies can decree certain religiously-sanctioned or religiously-tolerant actions ILLEGAL by fiat. Something tells me that you already realize that for a country like Nigeria, the latter is akin to setting fire to a combustible heap--the end of which may prove worse than present nightmares.

Conclusively, a lot of things are not done the proper way in Nigeria and so robust discussions should and do take place. The challenge seems to be how to translate all these well-meaning, positive ideas that millions of Nigerians have so as to better the circumstances of the people. It is rather unfortunate when that much-needed meeting of minds is hampered by religious or ethnic partisanship, or worse by crass misrepresentation or ignorance of the facts.

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