My perspective on cultural geography has been humbled by the stories of brave girls stripped of their innocence by depths of “tradition” all over the world. It started as a regular Monday night–I volunteered at a presentation given by the researcher and writer of Child Brides: Too Young to Wed, an article in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine– it culminated in an experience that I will not soon forget. Sometimes as young as two and three years old, more commonly twelve to fifteen, girls around the world (see photos here) share one startling thing in common: marriage.
Marriage, a term that at the age of twenty-two still gives me a feeling of slight discomfort, like slowly having my air supply cut off. My education has told me that child marriage is not only morally wrong, but also socially distasteful, shameful and, not to mention, utterly illegal. Yet, Monday night I sat stunned. My education is not universal; my practices do not represent the majority. I am a product of my cultural education, situated in society in exactly the same way these girls are placed into “underage” marriage (a relative term). While I would like to think myself and my cultural education more correct under the Western system of freedom in marriage, I cannot fairly write-off the practices, history, and lifestyles of those raised under a different set of rules. They are there. I am here. Their culture says “yes.”* My culture says “no.” Our world is filled with shades of gray, and that concept is one of the single most important lessons in cultural geography. We can not force assimilation, nationalism, or our own social standards onto other cultures.
The presenters, Cynthia Gorney and Stephanie Sinclair, stressed the importance of acknowledging a sense of duality on the issue, stating that they themselves felt the spectrum of emotions when faced with such a complicated matter. To be fair, respectful and unbiased researchers and journalists, they had to see the other side. From a local vantage point, many community members see the early marriage of these young girls as a system of protection, “understood by whole communities as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternatives, especially if they carry a risk of her losing her virginity to someone besides her husband, are unacceptable.” (Child Brides, NGM) In places where education is limited for girls, where public transportation is unsafe, and where life in a rural village is the only option, the bond of marriage acts to bind families, to shield young girls from rape and abandonment and is, at times, an acceptable religious practice in the community. According to a Yemeni member of parliament named Mohammed Al-Hamzi, “Islam does not permit marital relations before a girl is physically ready, he said, but the Holy Koran contains no specific age restrictions and so these matters are properly the province of family and religious guidance, not national law. Besides, there is the matter of the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved Ayesha–nine years old, according to the conventional account, when the marriage was consummated.” (Child Brides, NGM) It is this contradiction of cultural tradition with social norms that makes the concept of child brides so frustrating to consider and even more difficult to work with.
I left the presentation Monday evening trapped inside my thoughts.
There is very little that I can physically do to slow the system of
early marriage, furthermore, my role as an outsider makes taking up a
call-to-action even more complicated. What I can do, I quickly decided,
is use my freedom, my voice, and my reach (under the umbrella of
National Geographic) to bring attention and perspective to an issue that
is a tragic juxtaposition of cultural geography. I am one less person
ignorant to the discussion of child brides, and now, so are you.
Together we can help the seed of this issue grow by starting a
conversation, but we must be patient and open-minded in our approach.
This is my first step toward giving women everywhere a stronger voice
and platform to stand on. What will you do to give them a voice?
*Many instances of child marriage are illegal according to the laws of
the countries where they occur, but continue to be practiced in remote
villages, or within more traditional communities.
This fantastic spotlight on cultural geography took place at the
National Geographic Society. Tickets are sold to the public via NG Live!
where you can “step into a world of entertaining presentations by
today’s leading explorers, scientists, photographers, and performing
artists. From lively concerts to thought-provoking presentations,
captivating films to engaging family events, National Geographic Live!
brings you the world and all that’s in it.”
Tickets for fall 2011 events are on sale now. Check the Ticketing and
Information page and interactive brochure for more information about
events in the nation’s capital, and at other locations around the U.S.
and Canada. You can also give your loved ones a truly unique experience
with a Nat Geo Live gift certificate.
Teachers: Bring this discussion to your classroom with the help of PBS
NOW’s materials on the one-hour documentary “Child Brides: Stolen
Lives.” Also, follow up on the current status of the child brides with
this update on the June 2011 article from National Geographic magazine.
Photo Credits: NG Live! & Fredrik F. Froman