Marriage at 15: biology versus religion
Even though the legal position is clearly in favour of the Muslim Personal Law — and accordingly, the Delhi high court upholding the wedding of a 15-year-old Muslim girl is in tune with the law — a sense of unease has gripped the nation. At a time when education is being given so much importance, do we really want our daughters to be married, to bear children and spend their time in their rearing rather than in pursuing knowledge or expressing themselves through work? On the other hand, why should the State or society enter into our homes to decide when our children should marry? Troubling issues.
The issue goes beyond age. With the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (PCSOA) that was passed by Parliament last month, the age of consensual sex has risen to 18 from 16. This has been termed as undemocratic and regressive by a sessions court that said raising the age would act as a tool for the police to harass minors. The court recognised that teenagers between 16 and 18 can, and do, have consensual sex. The Muslim law that has held puberty or 15 as the age for marriage, therefore, is fine as far as biology is goes.
The bigger issue is social, notably women’s empowerment. ”According to Muslim law, the girl is ready to be married if her parents, particularly the mother, feels that she has attained the age of puberty,” Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, president of All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques said. What about education, I asked him. ”There is no relationship between education and marriage,” he said. ”If you say that a girl should finish her MBA or PhD and then marry, it is wrong because there are needs of nature that would push the children towards gunah, sin.” Sin, as in premarital sex, I asked. ”Yes.”
So, sex per se is fine, it’s just that it should not happen out of religious wedlock, in which case it becomes a deadly sin. Here, I think religions need to rethink their codes and preferably evolve. Premarital sex — a ’sin’ that all religions abhor even today — has gained legal and even social legitimacy and acceptance in most cosmopolitan areas in a globalised world. Religions must follow or be ready to be left behind and watch the faithful young women and men turn into mass sinners, even as they proudly hold on to their faiths. Parents may not like it, but to turn away from the truth wearing the garb of religion in an age of science is silly. Worse, those most affected by it — the young — have no voice in deciding what religion is.
Perhaps this law was fine in the past when mortality rates were half or a third of today’s and the natural urgency to procreate as many and as fast as possible was the force driving societies organised around religions. Marrying early was valid then and across religions — Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Hebrew. Religion, then, had a role. But if yesterday’s faith has become today’s dogma, if different communities have different ages of marriage, the model becomes a little flawed and creates a foolish disharmony — a Muslim girl can marry at 15 but not a Christian. Or imagine what happens in inter-faith marriages or sexual relations, surely you can’t hold just one participant guilty.
The debate is wider and finally ends around this question: should there be a Uniform Civil Code for all citizens of India, irrespective of their faiths? ”The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India,” directive principle of state policy No 44 states. This was the aspiration of those who wrote the Constitution. Should we move towards it? The jury is out on that one.