Tuesday, July 15, 2008

This is about child marriage in Yemen.

And when I say "child," I mean "girl," of course, because strangely enough this only ever seems to happen to female children.

In Yemen, girls are often married as young as 8 or 9. Sometimes it's because their families can't support them, sometimes it's because their families are afraid they'll be kidnapped and forcibly married by someone else (the article just sort of mentions this offhand, but WHAT THE FUCK), but largely because, as the article says, the fight against Communism in South Yemen (back when Yemen was divided) was won with its replacement with fundamentalist Islam. Just like, oh, Afghanistan. What was that about containment again? Boy, the Cold War sure was great, huh? (More on this later).

When Yemen was still divided, there was a law in the South saying that girls could not marry before age 16, boys not before 18. Since reunification and the rise of hardline Islamism (I have no idea if that's how, say, President Bush would use the word, but I know what I mean by it--again, more on that later [I decided this was too long and I'd save it for another time]), the law was revised to say that girls could get married whenever so long as they didn't move in with their husbands till age 15. Right. Fat chance.

The article was spurred by the fact that Nujood, a ten-year-old girl, ran out of her husband's owner's house, hailed herself a taxi (in rural Yemen? Nobody explained how this was possible), and went to the courthouse. It was the first time she had ever traveled anywhere by herself. The judge granted her a permanent divorce--she was lucky enough to find a sympathetic judge, rather than one who would have disregarded her and had her husband or father stand for her in court, which would no doubt had left her still "married" (I refuse to dignify this situation with that term).

Now she wants to be a human rights lawyer like the one who took her case, or maybe a journalist.

It just breaks my heart. When I read that last bit I could just hear a little ten-year-old girl's voice saying, "When I grow up..." and it's so terrible. Neither she nor the other girl profiled in this article had ever even been told what sex WAS before they were repeatedly raped and beaten before even reaching puberty. Yemen has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (Afghanistan's still worse, though), because girls are having massive numbers of children before they're physically ready.

When challenged, conservative Yemenis defend the practice as traditional, etc (there's even a proverb about how an 8 year old bride guarantees a great marriage) and point out that the Prophet Muhammad married a nine-year-old. Now, from what I understand (although no one can really know), he married her for political reasons, not for domestic servitude or sex, and he did not use her as such. It would definitely be an incredible act of hypocrisy to preach what he did about marriage and women and then do such a thing. (Such acts have, of course, been seen, but rarely have they taken place among successful prophets to my knowledge.) He seems by many accounts to have been pretty much devoted to his first and primary wife.

All that aside, there are three two [same as above: got too long] things I want to discuss here.

1: I know you have all heard it before, but it cannot be repeated enough and it would be a disservice to omit it: women and girls are little better than property in places like these. They are domestic slaves. Rural Afghan men usually take a second wife when their first is too physically worn out to work the fields, haul water, grind flour, etc. day in and day out, let alone have more children. The first wife will stay in the house, take care of babies, and do some cooking and cleaning while the new, strong, young wife (anywhere from 8-18 or so) does these incredibly arduous chores--alone, or with other women in the family. The men hunt for prestige and chat with each other. Opium farmers marry off their daughters to pay off debt, for Christ's sake.

And if you think there is no relationship between that sort of thing, honor killings, etc. and the way women are framed as objects, prizes, and/or babymakers here in this country (amazing, isn't it, how starlets change overnight from WYLD PARTY GRRL to Loving!Mother! as soon as they show a bump), then in some sense I envy you because your life is a lot less depressing than mine.

2: I want to discuss the relationship to the Cold War. The containment policy has been repeatedly cited as a model of international policy that combined force with diplomacy, caution/restraint with courage, and pragmatism with principle. This is all true, and our lame duck president et.al. could have learned a lot from the practitioners of containment.

However, the fundamental flaw in containment and, in fact, in every bloody thing the glorious "West" has done since we first figured out we could take brown people's land, is underestimating or misunderstanding the people we are trying to manipulate.

The people fighting the Cold War didn't think it mattered who replaced the Communists when they got rid of them. This was because rather than seeing the Yemenis, or the Afghanis, etc. as people with a grievance in need of an outlet, a hope, and a strategy, they saw them as brainwashed pawns of Stalin and Mao. (There was a doctrine whose name I forget that promoted international development because poverty was the best seeding ground for Marxism, but even that--while on the right track--had a paternalistic overtone). And they figured once that brainwashing was dealt with, they would go back to being powerless, harmless, dumb-ass little brown people.

Only it doesn't work like that. Inequity among nations continued to grow, the people were no less poor and hopeless than they were before, and fundamentalist Islam took root in the wake of Communism--in part as a backlash to some of the Communist ideology (atheism, gender equality, sexual freedom, and so on). And guess what? Different name, same problem, they're still pissed at us and they still know how to shoot.

I just think it's incredible how little it is discussed in the public discourse the degree to which we have created our own problems. The West colonized. The West fought wars that it couldn't quite win (I'm talking about the British way back when, not us now) and left chaos. The West drew borders to fit its own interests, never stopping to think how those borders might affect the situation on the ground and how that, in turn, might cause it problems. And the West (with the U.S. having taken over from Britain) continues to strut around like everybody's cocky big brother who you're just itching to punch.

Yet we talk about "radical Islam" and terrorism and this and that like they're endemic. Like they just grew out of the ground without any help.

Someone on Shakesville once discussed the U.S.'s profound lack of a sense of history. I think it's very deeply tied to our political cycle ("What? That wasn't me, that was the other guy! Clean slate!") as well as to our constant conviction that we can create ourselves, as exemplified in the American dream, the lucky break, the second chance, etc. Our pasts do not have to define us, so our mythology goes.

It's a wonderful attitude, but sometimes it's just not workable. In the case of the Middle East, it's plain stupid.

No comments:

Post a Comment