Underage marriage among Muslims in Kerala ignites debate

Child marriagesUnderage Marriage among Muslims in Kerala sparks debate. (Reuters)

Underage marriage among Muslims has ignited a debate in Kerala, with the community's most influential organisation vowing to get legitimacy for the practice while political parties and women's groups have said it would be a setback when Muslim girls have been making strides in education.

Striking a fine balance between family and class

It was triggered by a government effort to ratify underage marriages that have already taken place, because many such couples were finding it difficult to get their marriages registered. In June, the social welfare department, run by the Indian Union Muslim League in the UDF government, issued a circular asking local bodies to allow registration of marriages of girls below 18 and men below 21.

Eight states where over half the women are married as children

Political parties and Muslim women's organisations alleged this would promote child marriage, forcing the government to amend the circular. Under the new circular, underage marriages only before June 28, 2013, could be registered under the Kerala Registration of Marriages (Common) Rules 2008.

The cutoff offended Muslim organisations led by Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema, which controls the majority of mahallus in the state. Another recent event has upset these organisations. A minor girl, brought up in an orphanage, had been married off to an Arabian citizen and divorced him a few weeks later. Subsequently, the police cracked down on child marriage, raided several mahallus and arrested the orphanage's office-bearers.

Outraged clerics who have pledged to fight for legitimacy say underage marriages are not common but sometimes inevitable. "We are not promoting underage marriages," says Musthafa Mundupara, who is with Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema and is general secretary of the state coordination committee for the protection of Muslim personal law. "But certain situations may demand such marriages. The Shariah law allows Muslim girls to marry when they attain puberty."

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