By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
Yerima and Maimuna
The issue of Maimuna has reincarnated the dead issue of Yeriman Bakura’s controversial marriage to an Egyptian girl. Since I blamed us and various sectors of our society for silence over her issue in my article “Maimuna”, many readers have particularly singled out women advocacy groups, like WRAPPA and NAPTIP, for blame over their public silence on the matter. They accuse the women groups of hypocrisy, I think unfairly, as being interested only on high profile cases like that of Yerima and issues of self-interest like gender equality in appointments into public office while showing less interest on the plight of the ordinary folks like Maimuna. The comments can be reached at under the article on this lead: http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/12/trivial-5-maimuna-and-our-complacent.html.
The women fired back. The missile was fired by my sister and mentor, Hajiya Maryam Uwais, a respectable woman activist. She posted this comment on my blog under the article, Maimuna: “The issues are very clear and contrary to what many have said here, women groups and those that stand against abuses of this nature have been working round the clock to get to the bottom of this tragedy. And by the way, the allusion to Yerima was not necessary and unfortunate, especially in the context it appears. Yerima’s case was not necessarily about Yerima. It is about the thousands of young northern girls who get married off before they understand the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. It is about impunity and the selective use of Islamic principles and laws, depending on what side of the divide you are. It is about the poverty and hopelessness that prevails amongst many of our families and women in our communities, precisely because our leaders choose to look the other way when atrocities are committed in the name of Islam. It is about joining issues with those who use Islam for their selfish ends, while maintaining different standards when it comes to their own lives.”
Had my sister stopped there, I would not have bothered to write this article. But she fired her missile directly into the territory of her little brother, something I consider a friendly fire. Hear her: “Tilde, some of us are still waiting for your position on Yerima, especially because the issues there are not as clear as in this instance. Or do you write only on matters that will not attract condemnation or controversy?”
I consider this a friendly fire because women know that I have been on their side since 2000 when I wrote my six-part series titled “Rights of Nigerian Muslim Women” (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/rights-of-nigerian-muslim-women-6.html). I cannot recall how many women wept after reading especially the second part of that series: The Life of My Daughter. I still recommend the series for both young fathers and mothers. I have always come to aid of my sisters against laws I consider unnecessarily oppressive like when the idea of dressing code was contemplated in Kano during the heat of Sharia implementation. It was then I wrote The Hijab Controversy in Kano, Be Gone (http://fridaydiscourse.com/2010/05/hijab-controversy-in-kano.html). My sisters were very happy with these articles and Aunty Maryam herself helped to circulate some of them. I remain very liberal on women issues to this date.
On whether I write only on soft issues that do not attract condemnation, I believe my readers, including Aunty Maryam, will vindicate me. Hardly is there any reader that I have not offended at least once because I emphasize my individuality without any regard to group opinion. A conservative may think I am on his side, then suddenly an issue would come up and I would shock him by taking a very liberal stand. That is the way many Muslim conservatives were shocked by the first critical article Shariah in Zamfara (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/shariah-in-zamfara.html) or No to Mullah Dictatorship (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/discourse-99-no-to-mullah-disctatorship.html). Some people never forgave me on that to date. Similarly, liberals may be shocked when I wrote another series against secularism, God Save Us from Secular Laws (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/god-save-us-from-secular-laws.html) and the series on Almajiri (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/discourse-266-meditations-of-musa.html). Many northerners would be incensed with my articles Malam B (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/discourse-88-malam-b.html) and We are Boko Haram (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/discourse-261-by-dr.html), for example, while many of the southerners and our Christian brothers who were happy with the two articles must have hated
Dogo Nahauwa (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/02/discourse-285-dogo-nahauwa.html) when a Birom village was ransacked overnight. Some abandoned my column in Saharareporters since then. After the people of Bauchi did a kasa a tsare, I wrote The Yuguda Revolution (http://friddaydiscourse.blogspot.com/discourse-235-yuguda-revolution.html). My life was attempted twice; from the first one I escaped by a whisker. That did not stop me from writing more on the dismal performance of the Yuguda regime in Bauchi. In the end, as always, my prediction came true and I stand vindicated.
I hope the above is enough to also vindicate me on the accusation that I prefer to write on matters that are not controversial. I am so independent that I can write on anything I am convinced is important. But I did not write on Yerima because I was not convinced about the arguments against him. And I could not defend him either because, I believe, he should have acted with better discretion. Yes, he might have married a 13 year old, something he disputed, which I would not have permitted if it were my child. Yes, he was a senator, who should have ethically protected the bill his chamber passed into law even if he were against it on the floor. Yes, the marriage should not have been contracted in Abuja, which is a federal jurisdiction in which the law applies. I understood all these and many more from the arguments of the advocates.
Yet, I was not convinced enough on the basis of reason and revelation to jump into the fray. On the basis of reason, I have many questions whose answers have not been clear enough to me from the points raised by my colleagues in women rights advocacy. I pose some of them here.
When has marriage done under consent of the teenage girl and her parents become child trafficking or paedophilia? It could be another offense under a national statute, but not child trafficking or paedophilia. So Yerima might have violated a law, just as we violate the law against adultery, theft and rigging elections, crimes far greater to the life and dignity of women than marrying a teenager. Why haven’t we heard anyone prosecuted for adultery, a common crime taking place to the full knowledge of everyone? Why not take those who rig our elections to court, or those who loot our treasury? Reincarnate our parents and try all of them for marrying our mothers at the age of fourteen as it is very difficult to come across anyone in northern Nigeria, Muslims and majority of Christians, who was born up to the mid-1960s and whose mother was married later than 15 years. Let my sisters ask the old ones still living at what age were they married. Were our parents pedophiles or child traffickers then?
The two grounds given for preventing marriage until 18 were not sufficiently convincing to me. On health for example, the issue of VVF was the main one mentioned. However, it is known that nature, deviations apart, will not physiologically mature a girl without a corresponding matured anatomy. And where deficiency occurs, it does so irrespective of age or even body size. We have seen many huge women even at thirty and beyond who cannot have normal delivery due to the deficient anatomy of their pelvis. That said, experts have told us that VVF is also caused by other factors, especially the poor management of the delivery itself and lack of proper antenatal care. Again, let us look at the women around us, those who were married at the age of 14-15 years. Here in my village, we never had a case of VVF among them, and those reported elsewhere are not at a frequency different from that of other problems which women face at birth, many of them lethal. Or let me put it this way: can anyone give us the statistics of VVF per 1000 births in Nigeria? And of the reported 1000 VVF cases, how many were caused by early marriage? I do not think on a matter like this we should just be talking without credible statistics. The ones I know from experience do not encourage me to stop under-18 marriage just on VVF grounds.
If my knowledge of human and animal biology is anything to go by, the quality of off-springs naturally reduces with the age of the mother, if you discount the first year of menstruation in humans or heat in animals. A teenage girl that delivers, say, at 17 or 18, i.e. three to four years after the inception of her period, stands a better chance to deliver a more robust child than a woman in her thirties, other things equal. Later than this age, intensive management of the pregnancy and delivery is required to have a safe delivery. That is how it is in the entire animal kingdom. Nature cannot be stupid.
The other ground is social, which sister Maryam has alluded to when she said Yerima’s case “is about the thousands of young northern girls who get married off before they understand the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood.” Sincerely, are under-18 girls ignorant of marital responsibilities and motherhood in a traditional society like ours where every girl grows in the company of her parents, relations and friends? What has happened to the customary internship she undergoes before marriage and when she returns home during her first or second birth to deliver, in which she learns the fine details of maternal and neonatal care? I am not sure who better understood the responsibilities of marriage between our mothers who married as teens before and our sisters now who marry as graduates. Let this question be answered.
At least, most of us can attest that our mothers were faithful and diligent in executing their marital responsibilities in a manner that we cannot afford today. In fact, marriage to many of them was Ibadah, an act of worship. May God reward them abundantly! Though they did not go to modern school, they nevertheless brought us up with universal values of honesty, responsibility and brotherhood, only for such values to become perverted by the educational system that we underwent, which imbued us with the opposite – selfishness and materialism – whose results have brought about widespread misery and mischief in the land.
Moreover, unlike in other cultures, marital responsibilities are defined in the Muslim world because they have long been culturally imbibed to the level of norms. Our under-18 girls grow in that environment and they are not in the dark regarding what is expected of them.
So on both grounds, my reason failed to be convinced that there was sufficient ground to condemn Yerima in so vociferous manner.
Now let us move to the equally contentious ground of revelation. But before we settle on that ground to discuss what some of my sisters consider as the “selective use of Islamic principles and laws”, I find it important to state that I consider myself as a very moderate Muslim and, so far, a disciple of the moderate scholar Yusuf al-Qardawi, on most things. I am liberal with my dress, food, relationships and thoughts. Yet, I know my limits. I never dare cross the limits of God when it comes to opinions on categorical things like legislation – which is essentially the definition of halal and haram. That is His domain, as I explained in God and Legislation(http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/god-and-legislation.html) and Islam and Legislation (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/05/islam-and-legislation.html). I implore the reader that will contend with me on this to go through the Chapters al-An’am and al-Nahl in the Qur’an. There it is made clear that legislating on what is unlawful is the prerogative of God only. So no matter my moderate tendencies, I cannot say something is forbidden if there is no legislation from God forbidding it. My guiding principle in this is what scholars of Islamic jurisprudence call “presumption of permission in what is not forbidden” – al-asl fi al-ashya al-ibahah. Put in another way, God has permitted me to do anything in life except the few things He has prohibited.
I cannot find any principle in Islam that calls for forbidding the marriage of a teenager in the manner that we seek to legislate in the Child Rights Act under pressure from secular organizations like the United Nations. I cannot find where it is prohibited in the Qur’an or in the Hadith. In my study of the problem, I came across the fatwa given by the Grand Mufti of Egypt acceding to the prohibition of early marriage. But two things here need clarification. Egyptian establishment ulama are not a good barometer of Islam, just as Egypt is not a good example of democracy. They shift with the government in power. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to produce the Egyptian President tomorrow, the Grand Mufti is most likely to change his fatwa. There have been serious pressure from the government on the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia to give such a fatwa, but he refused.
The second problem is the definition of earliness. How early is early? 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, or younger? Just who is a minor in marriage? I think citing the case of Aisha here as a defence of Yerima is irrelevant. If the Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) were our example here, we would have seen most Muslim girls married at the age of 9 or even earlier. But throughout history, there are extremely few such examples, if any, to cite among Muslims. Many girls, I agree, are married as soon as they begin to observe their period; most of them much later. So in Nigeria we are not speaking about taking a girl to bed at the age of 9 because no one ever did that in the name of marriage; rather, I think the discussion centres around girls who are biologically matured but perceived as psychologically not sufficiently prepared for marriage, its responsibilities and consequences. On this, as I mentioned above, there is no cause to defend the prohibition from health, social or religious grounds. Islam has allowed this to the family to judge in the best interest of the girl. If there were any need for legislation on it, the Qur’an would have done it categorically as it did regarding many issues on the rights of women.
We are then only left with only one ground: the source of The Child Rights Act. Advocates against “early marriage” import their ideas from outside our cultural milieu, from the West that has different cultural history and practices from ours. I have earlier heard some Muslim women advocating for equal inheritance for women as for men, equal sharing of husband’s estate after divorce and so on – views totally foreign to the teachings of the Qur’an in which God has categorically given specific injunctions. Especially since the Beijing and Cairo Conferences, Islamic provisions are twisted by such advocates to enable the alignment of these strange views with its teachings. I do not think this is sincere or healthy. This is Americanization. This is imperialism. This is unnecessary. No honest and credible scholar can lecture Islam on the rights of women. It gave women rights centuries before anybody did. It still advocates for their rights better than any other creed to my knowledge. It still has sufficient room to emancipate our sisters from traditions that arose either from our African heritage or from some outmoded interpretations of Islamic injunctions in matters that are dynamic.
Interestingly, throughout the debate on Yerima, the advocates of Child Rights Act have not weighed the difficulty that the teenage girl would face in keeping with the Islamic value of chastity when she is not engaged in education or other career building vocations. Morality, defined in these terms, I understand, is not an issue under the Act. This exposes the girl to greater risks. Even on health grounds, for example, how many teenage girls are infected with AIDS in Nigeria before marriage? Is it possible that their number is by far greater than teenage women who suffer from VVF?
Let me say that education, like I said in the case of Almajiri, is what would change things, not legislation. If you ask me why I will not give my 16 year old daughter to anyone in marriage is because the circumstance does not call for that. I want her to be a carrier woman. But I will be stupid to think that her circumstance is like that of all other girls. I do not know the circumstance of the Egyptian family or of its girl which made it convinced that marriage was better for their daughter. However, the same education is denied the ordinary Nigerians by government officials and politicians who have subjected them to a chronic regime of poverty. Now they want to gag them through legislation. The age of marriage with increasing spread of education is increasing among Nigerians, without any legislation, because the girls themselves are increasingly becoming busier with acquiring a carrier. I will rather implore for our patience than forbidding what God has not forbidden just in the quest of adopting the plans of some foreign organizations.
My silence over Yerima, the reader must have realised by now, was even to the advantage of the advocates. In fact, my brothers would even accuse me of complicity in aid of the women rights activists. There was not just enough conviction to condemn him so much. But for others, perhaps because he is Yerima, there were more reasons than what we heard.
As for Maimuna, her case is very clear. It was rape. It was slavery. It was breach of trust. These three parameters can be established easily under any law worth its name, religious or secular, Nigerian or foreign. I would not have said anything if Yusuf’s crime were that he married the 16 year old Maimuna in a normal way. But what he and his gang did was criminal as I sufficiently explained in my article on the subject.
There is no basis for comparing Yerima’s case with Maimuna’s. That was marriage. This is rape and slavery using state apparatus of coercion. The problem here arose from the fact that, publicly, women advocacy groups did not treat the matter with the urgency they have been treating other cases before. It is a week now since the story was first published. But still not a single women group, to my knowledge, has issued even a preliminary statement to the press. That does not mean that they have not been doing anything. However, unless they come out publicly to register their disgust, what other opinion would they expect us to hold? It was in that context that I mentioned the case of Yerima.
So, though I never ran away from controversy, I do not write without sufficient conviction. I don’t follow the crowd. May be I will change my views later, but only on conviction based on new fact.
The reader is invited to share his own view with other readers by commenting below (http://fridaydiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/12/discourse-314-yerima-and-maimuna.html). I will be glad if we avoid harsh language. Our sisters have been doing a lot, but, understandably, they have their own limitations, just as we have ours in abundance.
18 December 2010
After reading one of the comments below, I realized that I did not cross check the minimum marriage age under the Child Rights Act. This partially informed by haste and by our common use of the common law legal term 'minor' in place of under-age which made me to presume it at less than 18. That is why I insist that your comments are important. Forgive this oversight. This inaccuracy, though, has not affected the thrust of my argument, that families, based on circumstances, are the best judges of deciding when to marry out their daughter, not the national assembly. That best varies even within girls of the same parents. Today, except the girl shows a tendency for promiscuity or dullness or the parents are handicapped economically or such other constraining issues, the best time a parent can decide on is that which accords the girl a bright, safe and happy married future. The window is not wide. Act wisely as parents and leave the rest to God. "After you have resolved, leave your affairs to God".