A reader recently sent me this link, along with the question: Who or what is to blame? Should we say that the religion or the culture causes this human atrocity? I feel like my answer is involved enough that it needs its own post.
Here’s the situation. A 12 year old girl in Yemen died of internal bleeding after having intercourse with her new husband. It’s not an isolated incident, either. The minimum age for marriage is somewhat nebulous there, and approximately one out of three women are married before age 18. Prepubescent girls are not physically prepared for adult sexual relationships, so there are often complications and injuries. In September, another 12 year old died from complications during childbirth.
So where do we place the blame? To begin with, we need to know something about Yemen. (Out of curiosity, could you find Yemen on a map?) One of the poorest countries in the Middle East, Yemen suffers from an unemployment rate that fluctuates around 40%. They have little oil compared to other Arab states, but they do have relatively large natural gas reserves.
Yemeni women bear approximately six children each. The population growth rate is very high compared to more wealthy and industrialized countries. Social organization is largely tribal, with somewhat sporadic interference and regulation from a weak central government. Fifty-three percent of the population is Sunni and forty seven percent is Shi’a. (Notice that’s 100% of the population. Officially, less than 1% of Yemenis are non-Muslim.)
Health care is scarce in most rural regions. Most childhood mortality is the result of illnesses which are preventable with vaccination programs. The average life expectancy is 63.27 years. There are approximately 3 doctors for every 10,000 people. Public education (including indoctrination into Islam) is universal, compulsory, and free for children aged 6-15, but the requirement is often not enforced, leading to a largely illiterate rural population.
Ok. Now we know something about the country and the culture. Most of my readers are probably somewhat familiar with Islam, so I will not spend time recapping their beliefs.
Now, with the caveat that I’ve never been to Yemen, nor am I an expert on Middle Eastern culture, I think there are still some generalizations that we can make about child marriage and abuse.
- Progressiveness (both culturally and politically) generally correlates to wealth and health. That isn’t to say wealth causes progressiveness — just look at Saudi Arabia and The United States. Two politically backwards religious countries who also have great wealth. But it is to say that when a culture is progressive, it also tends very strongly to have substantial wealth and health. Yemen has neither, so it’s probably fair to say that extreme poverty is contributing to their adherence to old traditional Muslim marriage models
- Education works the same way. Progressive countries tend to have high levels of education. Yemen does not. A lot of these folks probably have no idea how many mountains of empirical evidence stand against the practice of child marriage.
- Speaking of education… Though there’s no clear correlation between education and non-religiousness, there is a strong correlation between under-education and extremism. (There are some who might argue against this, citing the U.S. as an example, but I would make the argument that Liberty University doesn’t count as higher education.) That is, poorly educated people are more susceptible to wild literalist religious beliefs.
- Islam is a religion that actively and viciously punishes heresy (disagreement). Women are religiously mandated to be subservient (slaves). The law does not offer much, if any, protection for women who do not willingly acquiesce to their role in society.
I could probably go on listing potential factors involved in Yemen’s marriage policy, but I think the point is well made. To say that any one thing causes the problem would be too simplistic. There are many things that have caused it. On the surface, it looks like a reasonable deal for many poor parents. Their daughter is married off to a man who can afford to give her a better life. The girl’s family is better off, and the girl is better off. Many husbands make pledges to the bride’s parents, saying they will not consummate the marriage until she is older. Many of these marriages are polygamous, so it’s not like the girl is her husband’s only sexual outlet.
Of course, we know that this rosy picture is not always how it happens, but the rationalization is probably enough to convince parents on the edge of starvation to consent to their daughter’s wedding. So on one hand, we can explain it in purely economic terms.
On the other hand, we must recognize the power of theocracy. Regardless of how many of Yemen’s top political officials really believe in their religion, a large part of the general public does, and their belief makes compliance more intellectually satisfying. In the eyes of many good Muslims, the government is enforcing religious ideals, and that’s what God wants.
On the other hand (are we up to three hands now?) the Yemeni government is also pretty famous for less-than-entirely-legal enforcement of “local customs” such as complete subservience to the local warlord, regardless of what the centralized government says. Tribal warlords are often the final say on who does what and why.
So there are a lot of factors. Economic, political, social, and religious forces combine to create a compelling case for parents to continue to marry their daughters off at young ages. Sadly, if we removed any one “cause” with some kind of magic culture-wand, we’d probably still have the problem.
It has been said by many that education is a fundamental step towards individual progressive thought, and individual progressive thought is necessary for governmental progressiveness. I agree. But there’s a pretty nasty catch-22 when education is prevented by multiple factors. Education costs money, and there just isn’t much to be had. Education is anti-religion, and Yemen is ruled by the religious. (Most religious rulers are smart enough to know better than to educate their populace.) For education to produce a genuinely egalitarian culture, it needs to be universal — not just universal for men. Yemeni women generally drop out of school when they marry. Men do not. So that’s a problem as well. How do you educate everyone when it’s in men’s interest to keep women from being educated, and women are willfully forgoing education as it is?
If there was such a thing as “Atheist Evangelism Ministries” it wouldn’t do any good in Yemen. The culture is not ready for atheism. The government would simply squash it, and the penalty for professing atheism would be too high socially for anyone to do it. For godlessness to have a chance, there has to be religious freedom.
Cultural change is a long, slow process. At the recent American Atheists Conference, several of the speakers discussed a fifty to one hundred year plan for secularizing America. And that’s in a country which ostensibly already has religious freedom, and was founded on the separation of church and state. Religion may not be the “cause” of various social problems in Yemen, but so long as religious theocracy and social norms enforce and facilitate them, we can certainly say that it is preventing change. For Yemen, and unfortunately, for Yemeni girls, it’s unlikely that the practice of prepubescent marriage will end any time soon, and if it does, it’s likely that the fragmented nature of the society will lead to large pockets where the practice will remain prevalent even if the government takes a stand against it.