Sunday, January 10, 2010

Child brides' enduring plight

Sexist doctrines derived wrongly from religion.

Problem illustrates hold of tribal doctrines

Arwa Elrabee, a gynecologist, speaks on the phone as Rihab al-Askari, 17, waits with her son, Haitham, 1. Askari's parents forced her into marriage at age 13. When that marriage failed, she was wed again, at 15.
Arwa Elrabee, a gynecologist, speaks on the phone as Rihab al-Askari, 17, waits with her son, Haitham, 1. Askari's parents forced her into marriage at age 13. When that marriage failed, she was wed again, at 15. (Sudarsan Raghavan/the Washington Post)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Saturday, December 5, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- Ayesha rested her head on the doctor's desk. She had removed her black veil, revealing a round face contorted in pain. She had married a 53-year-old man when she was 13. Now 15, she wanted her childhood back. She clutched her sides and groaned.

It was 3:30 p.m. in Arwa Elrabee's office. The gynecologist looked at Ayesha and shook her head. She knew Ayesha's pain was as much psychological as it was physical.

"I don't want to be married," Ayesha explained, her mother standing next to her.

"Why did you marry her off so early?" the doctor demanded. "Why didn't you allow her to continue her education?"

"It wasn't me. It was her father," Ayesha's mother replied. "He wanted to marry her off."

Yemen has no minimum age for marriage, and girls as young as 8 are often forced to wed. Many become mothers soon after they reach puberty. The country has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. The death of a 12-year-old in childbirth this fall highlighted the health risks.

Child brides and young mothers are the most vivid manifestations of how tribal doctrines prevail over modern attitudes in the Middle East's poorest country.

The only place many young women here can vent their frustrations is among other sympathetic women, such as Elrabee, a former deputy health minister who has tried to alter perceptions about early marriages.

"Hopefully, my life will get better, God willing," Ayesha said.

"Life. This is the life," said Elrabee, as she watched Ayesha and her mother leave, dark blurs floating through a tangle of other black-clad women.

4:35 p.m.

Rihab al-Askari entered the office. She was carrying her 1-year-old boy, Haitham, who wore bubble-gum-pink footed pajamas. At 13, Askari's impoverished parents had forced her to marry a 20-year-old man whose family had offered a handsome dowry.

"My parents told me, 'You will marry today.' They didn't accept that I was just a child," she recalled. "They made me feel happy with a new dress and some perfume. I was just a child. I was so happy. It was yellow, red and gold."


Askari paused, as if to grab another memory.

"But I was only happy with the dress," she said.

Askari did not get along with her husband or his family. So she ran away. Her father repaid the dowry.

At 15, she was married off again -- to a cousin 10 years older.

By then, she had come to believe she was among the lucky ones.

"In my village, girls get married at 8, 9 or 10. I am better off than the others because I was married when I was 15," she said.

At 16, she had difficulty delivering Haitham. Now 17, she's having another baby. "I was afraid to get pregnant again. I am too young," she told Elrabee. "But my husband's family is big. They want a lot of kids from everyone. They have no money, so they need a lot of children."

"Life," the doctor said again, shaking her head.

4:55 p.m.

Fathia Ahmed, 18, wore a black abaya and high heels. She got married two years ago and immediately dropped out of school to have babies. But she couldn't get pregnant. Her in-laws were furious -- and impatient, she said. They wanted her to have a child at 16 -- and two more by now.

"They start to count since the day their women get married when they will have kids," Ahmed said. "Even when they are 8 or 10 or 12 years old."

Her husband threatened to divorce her. So Ahmed came to Elrabee for help. The doctor prescribed fertility drugs, even though she hadn't found any problems with Ahmed.

But on this day, Ahmed's eyes twinkled. She was pregnant.

"Mabruk! Mabruk!" the doctor shouted, or "Congratulations!"

5:10 p.m.

Three generations of women arrived -- Maha Shamsadan, her daughter Kareema al-Barati and granddaughter Sarah.

Shamsadan married at 12. Now 43, she has seven daughters and four sons. All of them live in New York and Michigan.

Barati married at 11. She's now 33 and has six children.

Shamsadan, who on this day wearing a black, sequined abaya, did not want her daughter to marry so young. "Kareema was angry when she got married. I will never forget the feeling," said Shamsadan, who is a U.S. citizen.

She tried to stop the marriage. Her husband promised her that their daughter would only be engaged. She would get married a few years later, Shamsadan said he told her.

"The family lied to me," she said; Barati nodded.

Barati said she felt uncomfortable when her husband, who was 20, touched her. A month after their marriage, he left for the United States.

"When he called me from the U.S., I asked, 'Who was this man?' It took me nine years to get adjusted to my husband," she said.

He sent her toys from the United States, she said. Today, she spends her time in both countries.

Will they marry Sarah off at 11?

"No, no," said Barati, her voice turning firm. "She will go to university and finish her studies. And then she will marry," she said.

"My husband promised me this, God willing," said Barati, looking at Sarah.

Shamsadan forced a faint smile to encourage her daughter.

What else could she do?

"Life," Elrabee said.

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