Yemen's Child Bride Backlash

Publication Date: 
April 30, 2010
Foreign Policy
Child brides in Yemen

After a 13-year-old girl's death, the conservative Islamists are retrenching -- with some bizarre, yet somehow effective, arguments.

The sad case of Elham Assi, a 13-year old Yemeni girl who died from internal hemorrhaging after being raped by her 23-year-old husband, has certainly sparked conversation in Yemen over the longstanding practice of child marriage. But the conversations -- taking place everywhere from Sanaa kitchens to the parliament building -- aren't exactly what you'd expect.

Instead of addressing the question of children's rights in a country where a quarter of all girls are married before they're 15 and half before they're 18, some Yemenis are treating Elham Assi's death as a rallying point against the so-called imposition of a Western agenda. Instead of catalyzing protective legislation for children in Yemen, as the tragic 1911 did for industrial laborers in the United States, her death may actually make it more likely that others will share her fate.

In February 2009, parliament approved a bill to raise the marriage age to 18 years old, causing an immediate furor in the Islamist community, which denounced the legislation as un-Islamic. The September 2009 death of a 12-year-old-girl in childbirth once again drove home the importance of this issue. However, the bill has since languished while a parliamentary subcommittee decides whether or not it's in accordance with sharia law. The subcommittee's decision is scheduled for May.

Over the past few months, Sheikh Mohammed Hamzi, an official in the powerful Islamist party, al-Islaah, along with hundreds of other conservative lawmakers and clerics, has issued a clarion call to "true believers" to oppose the law, that it is a first step toward allowing the West to take over Yemeni affairs.

"We will not bend to the demands of Western NGOs. We have our own laws, our own values," said Hamzi, who again this week when a coalition of Yemeni rights groups announced it would take legal action against the sheikh for maligning activists as infidels and agents of the West during his regular sermons at a Sanaa mosque.

Elham's death sparked reinvigorated calls from local rights activists to pass the bill. In response, Islamist lawmakers, conservative clerics, and members of the ultra-conservative Salafist minority renewed their vehement opposition. On April 22, the infamous henna-bearded Sheikh Adbul-Majid al-Zindani, an influential Yemeni Islamist scholar and reportedly a former spiritual guide for Osama bin Laden, at the conservative Iman University that the bill "threatens our culture and society," and he vowed to gather a million signatures opposing the law. His audience cheered in response.

Proponents of the bill say Islamists like Hamzi and Zindani are just using rhetoric to manipulate Yemeni public opinion. Here, anything that is perceived as un-Islamic or Western is immediately and virulently condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. The root of the problem, perhaps, lies in the frequency that these terms -- un-Islamic and Western -- are used synonymously. "If people think a law is ‘American,' it's done. Finished. It's over," said parliament member Abdulrahman Moazid, who supports the ban on child marriage. It's a political two-step not unlike referring to a law as "socialist" in certain circles in the United States.