“Because I am a Woman” looks at the situation of 1 in 5 women in the region
When did you last spot a wedding party and stop a moment to gaze at the bride and groom in their joy and finery? But imagine your reaction if you saw that the bride marrying a husband in his 30s was just a nine-year-old child.
This is what happened to Yemeni girl Nujood Ali. Her case came to international attention in 2008 after she escaped her husband’s home and became probably the world’s youngest divorcee, aged just 10. Beaten regularly by her in-laws and raped by her husband, she fled after two months of abuse and, with the encouragement of her father’s second wife, took him to court.
Eventually, Nujood was able to return to school like any normal 10-year-old. Her experiences were told by a French journalist in I am Nujood: Age 10 and Divorced and she became a central figure in Yemen’s movement against forced and early marriages.
Nujood’s story was one of several case studies featured in SAT-7 ARABIC’s women’s documentary series Because I am a Woman. Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil organisations, estimates that early marriage affects an estimated 1 in 5 women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In Yemen – one of only two countries in the world where there is currently no minimum legal age for marriage – the UN estimates that 1 in 3 girls are married before they are 18.
Because I am a Woman spoke to a number of MENA women who experienced this. Khawla from the Palestine Territories, was married at 13. Now 35, she recalled the abuse and threats she endured from her husband, how she was unable to complete even her primary education and was forced into work as a child. Jawaher, from Syria, spoke of being pressurised into marriage because of family poverty. She continues to live with her husband despite experiencing marital rape and violence because she has nowhere else to go. Nadia, from Egypt, expressed her regret at having been forced to marry at 16 and her dismay that her daughter chose to marry early and is now pregnant at 18.
Although the legal age for marriage is 18 in many countries, exceptions are often allowed with parental permission. Underage marriage is widespread, especially in poor and traditional religious communities and is seen as a solution to a number of issues.
Reasons for early marriage
In strict Muslim societies the protection of a woman’s “honour” is viewed as essential to the respect due to her entire family. It is this belief that lies behind an estimated 5,000 honour killings a year in the MENA region. Marrying a daughter off young is seen as a way to prevent the unwanted attention of men and avoiding the possibility of pregnancy before marriage.
Poverty is also a major factor. Marriage is thought to give the wife future economic security and also reduces the number of mouths the family must feed. This is especially true at times of war, such as the present conflict in Syria. Here too, reports show that some families arrange for their daughters to be married to prevent them being taken as brides by extreme jihadists like IS.
Thirdly, women in traditional communities are expected to conform to the roles of wife and mother. They have little freedom to postpone or step outside these roles to complete their education, develop an independent social life and gain economic independence.
The case studies featured in Because I am a Woman showed how child marriage often results in serious abuse, severely curtails women’s opportunities and causes physical and emotional harm.
Julie Nakouzi, the series’ presenter and producer, stressed how telling and questioning such practices can bring change: “SAT-7 cares about the dynamics of family life. We cover these issues in a way that challenges public opinion and encourages people to take a stand.”
Because I am a Woman encourages this by interviewing specialist workers and organisations that work at national and grassroots levels to bring change and includes a clear biblical perspective from a Christian commentator. Experts and representatives of various groups from Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt took part in the programme addressing underage marriage.
Lebanese pastor Revd Charlie Costa, one of the series’ Christian commentators, said: “In the Bible, women are looked at in a different way especially in the New Testament. The language of every text dealing with marriage and the family clearly demonstrates that it is a union of consenting adults. Equality is clear although roles are different.”
Mr Costa said the series has both men and women in its sights: “We hope it will serve to increase awareness for women and encourage men to be catalysts for change.”
Rita Elmounayer, SAT-7 Chief Channels and Communications Officer, said “Because I am a Woman is one of a number of SAT-7 series which seeks to end the victimisation of women and offer them hope and empowerment. By showing women and their families their God-given value, equality and potential, we hope millions more MENA girls and women will be able to live fulfilled lives, to their own benefit and that of those around them.”
ANSWER THE CRY
Our campaign, Answer the Cry, tells some of the stories of our viewers and the challenges they face, living as Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. Every day, SAT-7 receives more than 800 responses to our programmes – and demand is growing. The people of the Middle East and North Africa need your support more than ever before.
Your support can help us to be there for these people – to make programmes that will encourage their faith; to answer their questions; to give them a way to connect with other Christians.