Tuesday, April 29, 2008

From Swingset to Marriage Bed

Photo by Flickr user Guacamole Goalie, used under a Creative Commons license.

As I was reading further today in Leila Ahmed's Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam, I came across an account of the Prophet Muhammad's most beloved wife, Aisha, which sheds a small but bright spotlight on the marrying-off of very young girls, whether among the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints or anywhere, really. I should say I'm not meaning to pick on Islam in any way here. In fact, I'm going to do something rare for me and make a sweeping generalization about the nature of people - children - in just about any place and time since the dawn of civilization. (This is part of the fun of writing a blog; I'd have to be more nuanced and careful if this were a history book.)

When our story begins, Muhammad had spent a quarter century monogamously married to Khadija, a wealthy trader who had proposed to him when she was 40 and he only 25. By the time she died, he was well established as the leader of the nascent Islamic faith and ready to branch out into polygyny. Aisha was one of two women that he married soon after his first wife's death, when he was around age 50.

Now, by all accounts Muhammad adored Aisha best of all the many wives he eventually took, and she loved him dearly too. But the beginnings of their union are disturbing to modern Western sensibilities for reasons that (as I'll argue in a moment) can't be reduced to ahistorical cultural imperialism. Aisha was only six when her family betrothed her to Muhammad. They first had to break an engagement to a young boy to whom she'd already been promised, but her parents did so readily because they wanted to cement their alliance with Muhammad.

Here's how it felt for Aisha. (Ahmed's source on this are the hadith, or stories of the Prophet's life, some of which are tales told by Aisha herself.)
Aisha later recalled that she had realized she was married (that is, that the marriage agreement had been concluded) when her mother called her in from her games with her friends and told her she must stay indoors; and so "it fell into my heart," she said, "that I was married." She did not, she recalled, ask to whom (Ibn Sa'd, 8:40)
(Ahmed, 50)
The marriage was then finally consummated in her father's own house a few years later when she was nine or ten. Aisha's father, Abu Bakr, hurried the process along by providing the "marriage portion" (payment that the groom had to make) when Muhammad couldn't afford it. Again, we have Aisha's recollection of what happened next:
My mother came to me and I was swinging on a swing. ... She brought me down from the swing, and I had some friends there and she sent them away, and she wiped my face with a little water, and led me till we stopped by the door, and I was breathless [from being on the swing] and we waited till I regained my breath. Then she took me in, and the Prophet was sitting on a bed in our house with men and women of the Ansar [Medinians] and she set me on his lap, and said, "These are your people. God bless you in them and they in you." And the men and women rose immediately and went out. And the Prophet consummated the marriage in our house.
(Ahmed, 52)
Ahmed further recounts that Muhammed sometimes played dolls with Aisha and showed her "tender care and patience." (51) This would all be lovely - were he her father, and not her husband.

Again, I don't want to single out Islam in any way. The problem here is very young age at marriage, not any particular religion (though religiously-justified polygyny does seem to promote such marriages). I also don't want to denigrate the relationship between Aisha and Muhammad, which by all accounts grew into one marked by mutual love and interdependence, despite the passivity she initially displayed, not even showing curiosity about who her husband would be. I'm aware, too, that until just a few hundred years ago, no human society saw childhood as a distinct and special phase in life that needs and deserves protection and nurturance.

And yet - Aisha was still playing with dolls. She was flying high on a swing when she was brought to her husband, a nine- or ten-year-old virgin. I don't care if the time is now, 1400 years ago, or ancient Babylon; I don't care if the girl in question is six or nine or thirteen. Children do need to play. They do not need the cares and restrictions (in Aisha's case, literal seclusion) of adulthood. All of that can wait - even in societies where people's life expectancies are much shorter than my own - until a girl stops playing with dolls on her own accord.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the modern-day FLDS and their child brides given in "spiritual marriage" to men three times their own age.

No comments: