SANA'A // Hundreds of Yemeni women gathered in front of Sana'a's parliament building yesterday to protest against the government establishing a minimum legal age for marriage. Most of the protesters carried the Quran and some held posters that said such a requirement for marriage went against sharia, or Islamic law. "Yes to the sharia rights of Muslim woman," read one poster.
Nearby, dozens of counter-protesters marched, appealing for lawmakers to shun "an extremist minority inside and outside the parliament". The demonstrations came in the wake of a measure first approved by parliament last year. It stipulated that parents who marry off their daughters before the age of 17 and sons before 18 could face a year in jail or be fined US$500 (Dh1,800). Some conservative MPs who had opposed the measure called for the issue to be debated again before it becomes law. The proposed legislation was sent back to the Sharia committee in the parliament. It recommended that no age for marriage be set, according to Mohammed al Hazmi, an outspoken MP who is against a minimum age for marriage.
The legislative debate followed the highly publicised story of Nojoud Mohammed Ali, who was 10 when she sought a divorce in 2008 from her 30-year-old husband. Her story and that of Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl forced into marriage and who died delivering a baby, fuelled the movement in favour of a minimum age for marriage. More than half Yemen's girls are married before they reach puberty.
The protesters, who came from different religious schools in Sana'a yesterday, carried cartons which they said contained a petition signed by one million people against a minimum age for marriage. "We will not allow this [draft] law to be passed. This is against our religion that has not set an age for marriage. They want to impose Western values on us and we cannot accept that," said Asma Gob, a protester. "I got married at the age of 14 and my daughter is married now and she is 17. We have faced no problems" she said.
"It is not true that underage marriage is harmful but it has been scientifically proved to be healthy," said another protester who declined to give her name. "Marriage is a kind of protection for young people. We do not want our daughters to be like those girls in America who produce children without fathers," she added. Hooriah Mashhoor, the vice chair- woman of the Woman's National Committee (WNC), a government agency, and a counter-demonstrator yesterday, said the question of early marriage was debatable among Islamist clerics, which meant that the opinion of some should not be binding to all.
"This is an issue of argument among different clerics and therefore, we should choose the best for the girls of Yemen. They should be sent to schools instead of husbands' houses," Ms Mashhoor said. "Marrying children without any restriction is a sort of child-rape," Fawziah Shamsan, a woman rights activist, said while attending the demonstration. Some organisations, including WNC and the Seyaj Organisation for Child Protection, have appealed to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, to intervene through his ruling party, which enjoys a majority in the parliament, in favour of setting a minimum marriage age.
A study carried out in 2008 by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre at Sana'a University on early marriage in Yemen said 52.1 per cent of girls are underage when they wed, compared with 6.7 per cent of boys. The study showed that the average age for marriage varied across geographical areas. It showed that girls in the coastal provinces of Hodeidah and Hadramout married on average at eight years old, while in Mukalla the average age was 10. In urban areas, the average age was 15.
Early marriages are also a reason why a large number of girls drop out of school and why Yemen has such a high fertility rate (about 6.5 children per woman), the study said. email@example.com