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Child Marriage in the US – Not a Muslim Phenomenon

Part One

“I got married three days after I turned 17,” explains Aisha Zaky, an American Muslim who is now 37 years old.

“It was my decision. After my father passed away when I was fifteen, many people asked for my hand, because they loved my father. After meeting my now ex-husband for the first time, I didn’t really like him, and was not in the least attracted to him, but my mother had told me to at least make istikhara before rejecting him.  I did, and that night I had a dream with the prophet, Peace be upon him, which I took as a sign that my answer should be yes. We got married a month later.”

Aisha is one of 700 million women worldwide and hundreds of thousands of women in the United States who were married as children.  Child marriage is defined as “any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under eighteen years of age.”

While boys, too, sometimes marry young, it is disproportionately girls who find themselves wed in their teen or even pre-teen years. Child marriages take place all over the world and across cultures and religions.

According to Girls Not Brides, which describes itself as “a global partnership of more than 700 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential,” there are many reasons why children get married.  Gender inequality, poverty, culture and traditions, and insecurity often lie behind parents’ decisions to marry off their young daughters.  In the developing world, 1 in 3 girls is said to be married before the age of 18.

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What about the developed world?  For instance, is child marriage common in the United States? The country has taken an official stand against it in the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, writing “This strategy provides a framework to address CEFM [Child, Early, and Forced Marriage] and the factors contributing to the continuation of this practice, including the lower value put on girls’ education and the host of related challenges facing adolescent girls that hinder them from reaching their potential and participating fully in their societies.”

Because of exceptions in each of the 50 states to the law that makes 18 the minimum marriage age, child marriages are more prevalent in the U.S. than one might think.  In a recent article for the Washington Post, Fraidy Reiss writes about the foundation she started, “Unchained at Last,” which helps women resist or escape forced marriage in the United States.

“Unchained has seen child marriage in nearly every American culture and religion,” explains Reiss, “including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular communities. We have seen it in families who have been in America for generations and immigrant families from all over the world.

Her organization estimates that the total number of children wed in America between 2000 and 2010 was nearly 248,000.  “We learned,” writes Reiss, “that in 38 states, more than 167,000 children — almost all of them girls, some as young 12 — were married during that period, mostly to men 18 or older.”

Is child marriage necessarily a harmful institution?  Reiss provides some dismal statistics in her article:

“American girls who marry before 19 are 50 percent more likely than their unmarried peers to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college. A girl who marries young is 31 percentage points more likely to live in poverty when she is older, a striking figure that appears to be unrelated to preexisting differences in such girls. And, according to a global study, women who marry before 18 are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouses than women who wed at 21 or older.”

Are there some circumstances that make a youthful marriage a viable, healthy, and positive option?  What if the youths freely choose to marry, clearly possesses the necessary maturity, and do it for the right reasons?

Specifically, the Muslim community worldwide must ponder the question of whether child marriage a viable option for modern adherents to Islam.

Aisha’s story

Back when she was seventeen, Aisha was one of those clear-thinking, capable, and responsible young women.  “Originally,” she explains, “my main reason for wanting to get married at an early age was to protect myself from promiscuity and any fitnah of that type.  I saw other Muslim teens around me falling into those sins, and I felt scared of what I might be capable of. At the same time, I felt I was mature enough for marriage; I had completed high school early, started college, and was working and helping my recently widowed mom take care of my siblings.”

Aisha’s marriage ultimately ended after she left her husband after enduring many years of abuse from him.  When asked if she feels like her youth in particular made her susceptible to the abuse, she responds,

“I think that being young and not understanding people’s personalities, and not realizing the importance of setting boundaries, could be a factor in being a victim of abuse. However I do have a lot of other friends who did not marry young who also did not recognize the red flags before they were married. Most of these women were married to narcissists like I was. So I think that unfortunately, it is difficult for many people to really recognize they are in a relationship with a narcissist until it is too late.”

Fortunately Aisha has found happiness now with a caring husband and a fulfilling marriage and can look back on her past experiences with insight.  “I think that though many negative things happened (abuse, etc.),  it became a good thing in my life, because it strengthened my faith and reliance on God.  It shaped me into who I am today,” she says.

In the next part, more Muslim sisters who got married very young will share their stories.

Stay tuned…

First published: March 2017


About Laura El Alam
For the past decade, Laura El Alam has been a regular contributor to numerous Islamic publications. Her articles have been published in SISTERS Magazine, Al Jumuah, About Islam, and Muslim Matters. Her Facebook Page,  The Common Sense Convert, offers advice, support, and education for Muslim women, particularly new converts.