Islamist women in Sudan demanding an end to child marriages

There are rumblings of discontent within the Sudanese state; among those critical voices are Islamist women. They want an end to child marriages. 37% of girls in Sudan were married before they reached 18, showed a 2006 health survey. 12,5% were married before they celebrated their 15th birthday. Islamist women demand a legal reform of the Muslim Family Law.

With the Islamist coup d’etat in 1989, Sudanese women assumed a central place in the Islamic national building project, a project which in some areas opened up new possibilities for women and in others severely restricted them. Women are now in majority at the country’s universities. A 25% gender quota in the national and local legislative assemblies are put in place by this government and in the 2010 elections a woman ran as a candidate for the Presidency for the first time in Sudanese history. Yet, the Islamist takeover also took away important rights. For example, in 1991, the regime codified the Muslim Family Law. The 1991 family law, which regulates women’s rights within marriage, custody, divorce and inheritance, has emerged as a contested piece of legislation; among the debated elements are child marriages. According to the 1991 law, a judge can affirm a marriage for a girl who shows signs of puberty, often interpreted as the age of 10. The 1991 law revoked a judicial circular stating that the legal age of marriage age is18.

According to the Sudan Household Health Survey from 2006, within the group of women between the age of 15 and 48, around 37% were married before the age of 18 and 12.5% before the age of 15.

After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 and the National Interim Constitution with a bill of rights for women, processes of harmonization of Sudanese laws to the new constitution were initiated by the government. Particularly the minister of Social Welfare, Amira al-Fadil who recently resigned from her post, has been at the forefront of this process.  Many Islamists women are demanding law reform, including a reform of the law allowing for child marriages. The arguments used by women are related to the girl’s health and also societal benefit. They say that by abolishing the practice of child marriages, then Sudan’s high maternal mortality rates is likely to be reduced. In addition they claim that it will benefit society that girls get educated instead of marrying early and then goes on to participate in the labour force. Contrary to the image of Islamists as portraying an ideology that secludes women and girls from the work force, they are arguing for it.

On top of that, they are employing Islamic arguments. They follow the same line of thinking as the Nobel Peace prize winner from Yemen, Tawakkol Karman, who says that “there is a vast space in our Islamic Law heritage for reaching consensus on adopting the age of 18 as a minimum age for marriage.”

According to an Islamist woman heavily involved in the law review process of the family law in Sudan, she says that the Islamic law schools allowing child marriages,based on religious sources saying that prophet Muhammad married Aisha at the age of 9, are ‘misunderstood’ and must be viewed in the historical context it rose out of. She goes on to sayWe cannot take the Islamic law schools as the ultimate truth. It builds on the Quran, but it is human interpretation at the end of the day. They interpreted Islam in a certain context. Society has changed and Islamic law has to change with it. We must build it on the Quran, but interpret it in light of justice and the good life”.

Although they use Islamic arguments, they simultaneously refer to other legal frameworks, among those the national child rights law from 2010 which sets the legal age of a child to 18 and the 2005 constitution which stipulates that “the State shall emancipate women from injustice, promote gender equality and encourage the role of women in family and public life”.

The reforms suggested from Islamist women are considered against Islam by conservative religious forces and particularly the Salafists are mobilizing against it deeming them contrary to Islam. They are trying to induce a legal reform at a time when the President is under immense national and international pressure and the outbreak of renewed armed conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. The regime is showing signs of fractionalization, but unfortunately the reformists seem to be marginalized; At least for the moment. The Islamists women are concerned about the growing political influence of the Salafists on the President and they do not expect this to be an easy battle. In the words of an Islamist woman;

“Islam is not the problem. It is very civilized. It is a beautiful religion for women. But the extremists, the Salafists, are against the concept of law reform. They say Islamic law is the Quran and Sunna and it cannot be changed. We are throwing a stone in stagnant water. We will meet resistance. Some sections of society are against it”.

Although the Islamist women interviewed during the last 8 years of my engagement in Sudan are not necessarily for full gender equality and demanding radical feminist reforms, the importance of these voices should not, however, be underestimated.  They are, at the very least, showcasing an understanding of religion that allows for legal reforms in some areas, among those child marriages.