According to official Iranian statistics, 180,000 child marriages take place there each year. Besides the physical and sexual abuse endured by little girls forced into marriage, many also encounter emotional abuse. (Image source: iStock. Image is illustrative and does not represent any person in the article.)
"At eight years old my parents sat me down for a serious talk," said Noushin, during the interview. "I can still remember the tremble in my mother's voice. She told me that in two days I would be part of an Islamic religious blessing. My father insisted that I behave, and not cause a scene. I was confused, but I trusted them, that they were telling me the truth. I trusted them right up to the moment that the wedding ring went onto my finger and I became the bride of a 43 year old man." Noushin, now 19, is the mother of three.
You might assume that her parents, who so willingly gave their child to this man, were not educated or had never been exposed to modern ways of thinking. In fact, Noushin's father had been educated in Europe, and then came back to his country to work for the regime.
Noushin said the wedding was "a nightmare I could not wake up from. I understood that I was married, but I did not understand what that meant." She said was forced to have sexual intercourse before she reached puberty. "Each day was filled with new confusion, and new horrors," she said, as she tried to become accustomed to the role she was forced to endure.
"I thought the move into my husband's house was a punishment by my parents because I had not listened when they told me to stop playing a week before. I hoped that after that, it was torture, they would bring me back to my parents the next day. But it soon became clear that this was not a temporary punishment, it would last a lifetime."
You might believe that these things happen only rarely; that is not so. Noushin is not an exception. Islamic leaders claim that child marriages are now less frequent in their countries, but even if that is true, the incidence of it is still high enough to have drawn a fairly recent voice of alarm from the UN.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, where I am from, is run by Sharia law; child marriage is still prevalent. According to the latest statistics, confirmed by the Managing Director and Member of the Board of Directors of the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Children, Farshid Yazdani, 24 percent of all marriages in Iran are child marriages. Perhaps you might think, according to all the claims of Islamist leaders, that this is an improvement, right? Wrong. In previous years, child marriages – at least the ones that were registered -- were below 10 percent. So there has actually been an increase in young girls being forced into marriage.
These numbers mean that in Iran, tens of thousands of children are still being forced into marriages. In fact, according to official Iranian statistics, 180,000 child marriages take place there each year. As many marriages can be performed by a Shia Sheikh without the need to register them with the government, the unofficial number is doubtless higher; in this way, many marriages of girls under 10 years old take place.
Before the Islamist party of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, the legal age of marriage was 18 for girls and 20 for boys. After the mullahs' party imposed Sharia law in Iran and made it the official unquestionable law of the land, the authorities immediately changed the age of legal marriage to 9 for girls and 13 for boys. After 40 years, the Sharia-based law has not changed. If they truly wanted to deter child marriage would that not be the place to start?
In addition, in 2013 in Iran, a law was passed that allows men to marry their adopted daughters.
Besides the physical and sexual abuse that these little girls endure, many also encounter emotional abuse. Under Sharia law, these young girls must completely comply with their husbands wishes. The husbands have the right to divorce their wives at any time, but the wives do not have such a law. According to the head of the Social Work Association in Iran, Hassan Moussavi Chelak, there are more than 24,000 child widows in the country. These girls have been through marriage, trauma, and then are abandoned, left alone to fend for themselves.
Some of the grooms in these marriages are middle aged or older men. Some of the grooms try to say that the reason for so many child marriages is the economy: that the need for money is what drives these parents to arrange marriages for their children to older men. There are many countries, however, where poverty is a problem, but child marriages do not exist, or not to such an extent. The reason this plague continues to occur is because it is sanctioned and even encouraged by the Sharia-based law. While other countries forbid such abuse, it does not happen; but the Islamist law of Iran embraces it.
The Sharia law in Iran provides the platform, the legal language and the judicial legitimization, for adults to marry girls younger than ten, and for the parents of these children to profit from it, both financially and religiously.
Noushin has suffered more than most people could ever comprehend. She is determined to get a divorce and find a way to raise and provide for her three children. She never had a choice at the age of eight, when her childhood was sold. She never had a choice when she became pregnant. Now, she is willing to risk everything to be free.
This is not simply a problem only in Islamist countries. Children in other countries vulnerable as well.
Facebook acted as an auction block for a child bride in South Sudan as recently as last month.
Sweden has also apparently been seeing an "increase in reports of forced and child marriages."
The World Bank assessed last year that the prevalence child marriage "still remains far too high. In a set of 25 countries for which detailed analysis was conducted, at least one in three women marry before the age of 18, and one in five women have their first child before the age of 18."
Child marriage is also, it seems, prevalent in the United States. Only this year, Delaware became the first state to ban marriage under the age of 18.
You may find it hard to believe that it could be legal for a 70 year old man to marry a girl as young as 5 but it happens, and will continue to happen. Unless the international community steps in and, instead of appealing to Islamist leaders, applies pressure to get these laws changed, more children will be at risk.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated scholar, businessman, political scientist, board member of Harvard International Review, and president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He has authored several books on Islam and US Foreign Policy. He can be reached at Dr.Rafizadeh@Post.Harvard.Edu