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The Myths That Sustain Cruel Practices Like Early Marriage Are Not Just Scary Tales Of Demons

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By Abhishek Jha:

My first encounter with the idea and practice of early marriage was in the form of a short story I read as a child. It was a translation in Hindi of a story by Rabindranath Tagore. Even as a child, with my feelings about most things still inchoate , I felt a deep sense of injustice when the character of the groom- a college student- tried to burden the bride with his adult feelings and ideas. The bride, a rebellious tomboy, flouted her husband’s authority as much as she could. However, the husband being the only source of love and care nearby, she gradually had to accept her husband. The groom, too, traversed the plot in ambiguity, trying to rationalise his university education and conscience with social norms and the desires of the body.

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While most of us urban youngsters may think of early marriage as a dead practice, it continues to be the brutal reality for a great number of children in India. The reasons most commonly cited today by parents for getting their children married early are proven unfounded. How then has the practice survived over the ages?

Poverty and lack of education seem to be the most ostensible reasons. But as one can see for oneself, the argument against the practice does not even require one to be literate. Nor does it seem reasonable that parents should put their children in the way of serious harm (which can mean death too) if they could avoid it. There is a likelihood of another layer of irrationality clouding the vision of the communities that are still mired in this old practice. Happening to know a few old and distant relatives to have been married in their early teens, I ask my parents for an explanation. The reason that guided the parents of those relatives is a mixture of those cited above. The groom happened to be a student of engineering, which meant that his prospects were good. However, as he wasn’t employed yet, not only would the dowry be reasonable but the parents of that unfortunate aunt would not have to explain the illiteracy of their daughter. The reason for her illiteracy, I am told, was the uselessness of education for a woman whose only work was doing the household chores.

One can clearly see how the status of women in society is responsible for their early betrothal. The root of such social practices and a pre-dominantly patriarchal society runs deeper. The myth that a woman must remain wedded to the household has a deeper story of veiled oppression behind it. Some may argue that even the groom happens to be a child in some cases of early marriage. This is true and it affects the male child as much. But one will agree that it is the parents of a girl child who are under the pressure of getting their daughter married at the ‘right age’. In addition, the girl even in those cases happens to be usually much younger than her spouse. While we fight against these orthodox practices by gender sensitisation and awareness about health risks, it would be useful to know where exactly in history these ideas took root in society.

Dr. Ambedkar, in his essay ‘The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women‘, offers a clue that might help one find the origin of the practice of early marriage in India. One learns that while Brahmins are said to have already observed most customs and practices that treat women as unequal to men, it is Manusmriti that instituted those practices with the force and sanction of a law. A text ascribed to Manu, the progenitor of mankind according to Hindu traditions, is a discourse on the right conduct (dharma)of a human being. A brief perusal of the relevant sections of the text immediately reveals that it is replete with laws that are blatantly misogynistic and oppressive of women. Women are portrayed as characterless, sex-hungry coquettes, threatened with diseases and born in “the womb of a jackal” after death, and denied any freedom or agency in their life. One almost feels like appropriating Dawkins’ famous accusation against the God of the Old Testament here. Manu indeed appears to be a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic and malevolent bully. (Source)

And, he advocates early marriage. Here is a translation of the verse (Manusmriti, IX, 95) given by G. Buhler: “A man, aged thirty years, shall marry a maiden of twelve who pleases him, or a man of twenty-four a girl eight years of age; if (the performance of) his duties would (otherwise) be impeded, (he must marry) sooner.” It is important that one understands the power enjoyed by the text. Religious practices and laws were sacrosanct and disobeying them could lead to one’s ouster from the society. It was important for Brahmins, who were the religious authority, that these laws had power. That is how they could remain powerful as a class and caste. While ancient India is believed to have had equal rights for women, which allowed them to undergo the same Vedic education as men, the advent of Manusmriti started a downward spiral. And since Brahmins were the authority in religious issues, these laws affected the backward castes more. A manifestation of the same can be seen in the still persistent Devadasi system that continues to force women of entire communities into prostitution. Earlier, the women dedicated to the temples were partaken as any other offering at the temple was. First, it was the priests and the rulers or the wealthy patron of the temple. As the woman grew older she couldn’t help but become a prey to everybody who could help her sustain her life.

Early marriages are not, however, only observed in Hindu traditions. Another myth that is incorrectly used to justify early marriages is that “Aisha was only 9 years old when Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) married her”. This myth has been debunked and proven historically inaccurate by scholars of Islam. And although it is difficult to establish whether it is the economic condition or religion which is responsible for the perpetuation of the practice, people who continue the practice are quick to use religious reasons as a shield. However, the ambiguity does not help Islamist scholars in refuting religion as a cause in debates when clerics continue to argue that the Indian laws against early marriage should not apply to Muslims.

Myths then appear to be what they are: apparitions. They have not only camouflaged the vile interests of classes but created a repressive structure that would not require force to put a system into place. By demonising women they have stopped them from exercising the freedom that is due to them. A society deeply entrenched in sexism uses all sorts of tools to fight against equality of the sexes. Early marriage happens to be one such tool. Mythological stories about the Goddess Yellamma continue to deceive many into believing that their life as a devadasi prostitute will bring good fortune to them and their family (Source). Forced prostitution of women of backward classes from early times has ensured that they live their life devoid of any education, unable to fight on an equal footing with their oppressor.

The myths that sustain such practices are not just scary tales of demons. The aunt who was forced into marriage as early as thirteen was not told anything about becoming a goddess or getting nearer to one. Those stories have resulted in deeply ingrained myths of superiority of sexes, classes and castes; fictions in themselves that do not need celestial powers to sustain them anymore. For a more just and equal society, each of these stories needs to be retold. The forces that have established these norms are powerful and the fight against them needs the power of your participation.

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  1. Babar

    Why is it ‘girl child’ and not ‘boy child’? Why is it women politician, women teacher, women cricketer, whereby the word female is deliberately omitted, but it is perfectly acceptable to say male scientist, male doctor, male lawyer, etc? Double standards! What else are we going to change to please feminists? First, they despise the word ‘female’, and now they want to get rid of the word ‘woman’ too. They don’t like the word ‘woman’ because it contains the word ‘man’ in it, and then they claim that they are not men-haters.

    From Wikipedia: “Womyn” is one of several alternative spellings of the English word “women” used by some feminists. There are many alternative spellings, including “womban” and “womon” (singular), and “wimmin” (plural).

    1. Fem

      Babar

      You have got replies for these same questions you raise in every article. Yet you again go to a fresh article and post the same nonsense. Even you should understand by now that you are not looking for answers. You are merely looking to rant.

      Girl child vs boy child has been explained to you earlier too so I would not waste my time further. If you really want to know please back track your comments. I am sure you have enough time on hand. A hint though – (1) Most of the time girls are married to much older ‘men’ and not young boys, (2) In a marriage such as this a girl has to forgo her independence, education, suffer marital bed (read rape), bear children at age when her body is not ready among other evils.

      Women/Female/Male – I still haven’t understood your question, the anger and the logic behind this? They are called female politician, teachers and what nots as well as women politician/teachers etc. Who is not calling them such? And even if someone chooses to call them one over other what exactly is your problem? I do not know how much time do you spend in researching obscure concepts which no one else is aware of. The world is full of all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions. Why do you need to rant at each and every one of them even if they are like I said ‘obscure’ at best. Apart from you no one else was even aware of this so why the foam around mouth?

    2. Babar

      I still haven’t understood your question, the anger and the logic behind this?

      You have written an entire comment without understanding anything I have mentioned! By the way I am not angry, only exposing feminist hypocrisy and double standards.

      YKA’s esteemed bloggers also use womyn, and their idol is Kangana Ranaut, a woman womyn who proudly claims that she will slap her father.

      From the article: She told The Times of India in an interview, “My father slapped me for the first time at 15 and I told him, if you slap me I will slap you back.”

      Why is it always girl child but male child, woman politician but male politician, woman cricketer but male cricketer, etc. Have you ever seen man scientist, man doctor, etc, anywhere? Why is the word ‘female’ substituted with ‘woman’ while the word ‘male’ is not substituted with the word ‘man’?

    3. Babar

      From Wikipedia: “Womyn” is one of several alternative spellings of the English word “women” used by some feminists. There are many alternative spellings, including “womban” and “womon” (singular), and “wimmin” (plural).

    4. Fem

      I understood quite well my dear friend. But you are in the habit of (a) not reading and (b) not understanding. To save you from the mammoth task of reading my comment let me quote exact lines and try to explain a bit further.

      “They are called female politician, teachers and what nots as well as women politician/teachers etc.” “And even if someone chooses to call them one over other what exactly is your problem? I do not know how much time do you spend in researching obscure concepts which no one else is aware of.” “Why do you need to rant at each and every one of them even if they are like as I said ‘obscure’ at best. Apart from you no one else was even aware of this”

      The operative word here is ‘obscure’. These are something someone said. Its not a widely followed word or thought. Even if it was I still don’t understand your or even their problem. Call them whatever you want to call them. Man or Woman, Male or Female. How does it change anything? The way it appears to me is that someone comes up with a logic or term somewhere. Most of people (except you because you keep on researching useless concepts) do not know about it. And then you pick these terms which are obscure and therefore not relevant at all and use them to spew venom. While the rest of us are ‘whattt… Why… ???’ Try to pick up things which are relevant. In the absence of logic and material do not go researching things which ‘á few feminists and one blogger’ spoke about. And especially things like should one be called woman or female or Womyn or other things. Call us ‘Jewuewuhew’ if it makes you happy. We would still remain the same person.

    5. Fem

      Besides your premise itself is wrong. They *are* called female child, female politicians, female cricketers and female other things. Just google, instead of wondering here.

      Female and Women are interchangeable and therefore used as substitute. You can substitute Male with Man if you feel like. I promise you, you would not be pelted with stones. Most of the people do not do it (i.e. call Man Politician or Man child etc) because its not in general usage. Start a revolution if it’s a requirement in your opinion.

    6. Babar

      The operative word here is ‘obscure’.

      You have very intelligently labelled a man’s issue as ‘obscure’, implying that they are not of any importance, clearly hinting that it is only women’s issues that hold significance.

      Most of the people do not do it (i.e. call Man Politician or Man child etc) because its not in general usage.

      Why not? Perhaps because it is only women’s issues that need addressing, and only women are human beings.

    7. Fem

      Now you are actually blabbering 🙂

      I suggest you read what I wrote and what you are writing once again.

    8. Panda

      “They don’t like the word ‘woman’ because it contains the word ‘man’ in it”
      Black feminists preferred to call themselves “womanists” as opposed to “feminists” with reference to a term coined by Alice Walker.

      WOMANIST
      1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
      2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
      3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
      4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

      Educate yourself, Babar. And please stop trolling every article you come across. Bye.

    9. Babar

      The majority of feminists are not black, so your comment does not hold any ground.

  2. Prashant Kaushik

    few weeks later, some one like you, will quote this article and show it as a proof just as you quoted some other looser’s article. This creates a vicious chain from which the so called intellectuals and writers never want to come out.
    People who have no idea about Hindu dharma, but are delighted in condemning it, easily create a lobby, keep throwing reference pointers to each other, and give an impression of mathematical accuracy while all while they survivein vague presumption and intense distortion.

    Sorry Sir, Hindu scriptures don’t go the way you have projected. You have presented their very selective and wrongful usage.

    In ancient India, women had the freedom to choose their own partners through a process we popularly known as Swayamvar. This is evident from the epics which form the backbone of this religion. Do you think parents in those days would ask their toddler daughters to execute their choices ? Obviously only a grown up woman could choose her husband.

    Manusmriti spares none. On different pages, it’s equally harsh on men and men from all classes.

    Dayanand Saraswati, one of the most reliable sources in modern history, relying on Vedas had strictly put the least age of marriage for girls as 16 ( and that was miles ahead in those days of 19th century).

    I am not a Sadhu or a religious commentator but as a reader I can say that writers on this forum ( esp when they boast to represent country;s renowned tech college), needs to be more careful in giving sanctity to stray, selected and prejudiced observations. )

    We need to weed out practices like Child marriages but dont make that an excuse to vent out your hatred towards religion.

    1. Abhishek Jha

      Prashant, the articles does not vent hatred towards any religion. It only examines what mythological veneer had been created in the past to sustain such sexist practices. The state of women in ancient India pointed out by you has already been stated in the article: “ancient India is believed to have had equal rights for women, which allowed them to undergo the same Vedic education as men”.

    2. Abhishek Jha

      *that had been created

  3. Srishti

    Wrong. David Leipert is not an authority on Islam. Demonising of pre-islamic/ pagan/ non abrahamic faiths as the cause of Islam and the muslim world’s flaws is a common tactic used in Dawahganda(proselytisation) of Islam as well as creating a dichotomy between Islam and culture and blaming the latter even when all except Islamic influences have been exorcised from said society. Especially those tolerant multi-faith pagans.

    Also all major schools of Sunni and Shia school of thought including the Hanafi school which has the largest number of adherents agree that what would be called a ‘child marriage’ is a marriage.The idiotic claim that she was ‘enthusiastic’ is disgusting and demeanining to Muhammad’s concubines and ‘marriages’ to Saffiyah and other captured women.

    It’s funny how whenever someone writes something that tries to defend Islam and the legacy of Muhammad, citations are almost always totally absent. Whereas those that criticize Islam usually provide a lengthy list of citations to the original hadiths and Quran. And then they accuse the critics of Islam of spreading lies and misinformation.

    The fact that countries like Saudi Arabia use the Hadiths to justify men marrying underage girls is only a reflection of a patriarchal and oppressive society.
    Once again the patriarchal and oppressive nature of religion is conveniently let off the hook- and yet it’s because of the religion that they justify their practices. Also Aisha didn’t convert. Thus, the exact same Arabic phrase – لَمْ أَعْقِلْ أَبَوَىَّ إِلاَّ وَهُمَا يَدِينَانِ الدِّينَ – which does not use any word for puberty that I can see – becomes in English: I had seen my parents following Islam since I attained the age of puberty.

    – Abu Tughlub ibn Hamdan married the daughter of `Izz al-Dawla Bakhtyar when she was three and paid a dowry of 100,000 dinars. This took place in Safar 360 H. (Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil).- Al-Shafi`i in al-Umm reported that he saw countless examples of nine-year old pubescent girls in Yemen. Al-Bayhaqi also narrates it from him in the Sunan al-Kubra as does al-Dhahabi in the Siyar.

    – Al-Bayhaqi narrated with his chains in his Sunan al-Kubra no less than three examples of Muslim wives that gave birth at age nine or ten.

    – Hisham ibn `Urwa himself (whom the objector claims to know enough to forward the most barefaced judgments on his reliability) married Fatima bint al-Mundhir when she was nine years old (al-Muntazam and Tarikh Baghdad).

    – Our liege-lord `Umar married Umm Kulthum the daughter of `Ali and Fatima at a similar age per `Abd al-Razzaq, Ibn `Abd al-Barr and others.

    – And our Mother `Aisha herself was first almost betrothed to Jubayr ibn Mut`im before her father dropped that option when he received word from the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless and greet him and be well-pleased with them.

    Second, `A’isha did not participate in Badr at all but bade farewell to the combatants as they were leaving Madina, as narrated by Muslim in his Sahih. On the day of Uhud (year 3), Anas, at the time only twelve or thirteen years old and married, reports seeing an eleven-year old `A’isha and his mother Umm Sulaym having tied up their dresses and carrying water skins back and forth to the combatants, as narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

    NOTE:I agree with your views on Manusmriti unlike other commentators but it’d better to quote exact verses especially when a google search would suffice

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