Dispatch

Yemen's Child Bride Backlash

After a 13-year-old girl's death, the conservative Islamists are retrenching -- with some bizarre, yet somehow effective, arguments.

The sad case of Elham Assi, a 13-year old Yemeni girl who died from internal hemorrhaging after being raped by her 23-year-old husband, has certainly sparked conversation in Yemen over the longstanding practice of child marriage. But the conversations -- taking place everywhere from Sanaa kitchens to the parliament building -- aren't exactly what you'd expect.

Instead of addressing the question of children's rights in a country where a quarter of all girls are married before they're 15 and half before they're 18, some Yemenis are treating Elham Assi's death as a rallying point against the so-called imposition of a Western agenda. Instead of catalyzing protective legislation for children in Yemen, as the tragic 1911 Triangle Factory fire did for industrial laborers in the United States, her death may actually make it more likely that others will share her fate.

In February 2009, parliament approved a bill to raise the marriage age to 18 years old, causing an immediate furor in the Islamist community, which denounced the legislation as un-Islamic. The September 2009 death of a 12-year-old-girl in childbirth once again drove home the importance of this issue. However, the bill has since languished while a parliamentary subcommittee decides whether or not it's in accordance with sharia law. The subcommittee's decision is scheduled for May.

Over the past few months, Sheikh Mohammed Hamzi, an official in the powerful Islamist party, al-Islaah, along with hundreds of other conservative lawmakers and clerics, has issued a clarion call to "true believers" to oppose the law, arguing that it is a first step toward allowing the West to take over Yemeni affairs.

"We will not bend to the demands of Western NGOs. We have our own laws, our own values," said Hamzi, who made headlines again this week when a coalition of Yemeni rights groups announced it would take legal action against the sheikh for maligning activists as infidels and agents of the West during his regular sermons at a Sanaa mosque.

Elham's death sparked reinvigorated calls from local rights activists to pass the bill. In response, Islamist lawmakers, conservative clerics, and members of the ultra-conservative Salafist minority renewed their vehement opposition. On April 22, the infamous henna-bearded Sheikh Adbul-Majid al-Zindani, an influential Yemeni Islamist scholar and reportedly a former spiritual guide for Osama bin Laden, told a crowd at the conservative Iman University that the bill "threatens our culture and society," and he vowed to gather a million signatures opposing the law. His audience cheered in response.

Proponents of the bill say Islamists like Hamzi and Zindani are just using rhetoric to manipulate Yemeni public opinion. Here, anything that is perceived as un-Islamic or Western is immediately and virulently condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. The root of the problem, perhaps, lies in the frequency that these terms -- un-Islamic and Western -- are used synonymously. "If people think a law is ‘American,' it's done. Finished. It's over," said parliament member Abdulrahman Moazid, who supports the ban on child marriage. It's a political two-step not unlike referring to a law as "socialist" in certain circles in the United States.

Certainly, the frenzied accusation that the proposed bill does not conform with sharia is ill-founded. Saudi Arabia, Yemen's ultraconservative neighbor to the north and its guide to all things Salafist, has passed similar legislation, declaring it acceptable under Islamic law. Furthermore, despite the claims of conservative clerics, Western NGOs had very little, if anything, to do with the legislation. Yemeni rights activists, lawyers, and women's groups are almost entirely responsible.

Yet, to many Yemenis, the issue seems to awaken a visceral fear of Western cultural imperialism. Anti-American sentiment runs deep here -- there is an entire generation of Yemeni men named Saddam, born after their namesake "defeated the Americans" in 1991 -- and this fear directly affects the country's domestic politics and foreign policy.

In January, after the failed Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was tied back to a plot hatched in Yemen, rumors about U.S. security forces setting up bases in the country were met with scathing speeches and editorials by politicians, imams, and Yemen's dwindling literati alike. A group of 150 Islamic scholars signed and published a public letter affirming Yemenis' religious right and duty to "global jihad" if their land was invaded. Locals posted signs saying that if U.S. troops so much as set foot on Yemeni soil, every Yemeni would join al Qaeda.

Similarly, the Islamists' double talk on child marriage appears to be working. At a protest outside parliament in late March, opponents of the bill, holding Korans above their heads, accused lawmakers of being anti-Muslim and kowtowing to Western demands. "Who are you to say we should change our laws?" a young woman who had been at the protest asked me. "This is our country. We have our own religion, our own values, and we don't need you telling us what to do." Other demonstrators condemned the bill while simultaneously opposing U.S. military involvement on Yemeni soil.

Most Yemenis are appalled by the marriage of 8-year-old girls and were horrified by Elham's early death. However, they are against anything that impinges on their cultural sovereignty. Yemenis are, and will continue to be, emphatically opposed to anything that is perceived as anti-Islamic. The problem is that, with the help of some rabble-rousing clerics and politicians, the circle of what constitutes "anti-Islamic" is constantly widening.

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images

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