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.