Iraq Wants To Legalize Child Marriage

A new law would approve marriage to girls as young as nine in a bid to appease the nation’s conservatives ahead of parliamentary elections.

Karim Kadim/AP

In a bid to please the nation’s Shi’a Muslim majority ahead of parliamentary elections, Iraq’s Council of Ministers has drafted a law that would legalize marital rape, as well as grant men the authority to marry girls as young as age nine. The Jaafari Personal Status Law was approved by the Council of Ministers in February, and now awaits likely passage in the Iraqi parliament in the last days before the April 30 election.

The chaos in neighboring Syria, a domestic electricity crisis of demand, and yet another “Battle for Fallujah” have all set a geopolitical tone for what will likely be contentious parliamentary elections. The introduction of the Jaafari Law will add religious and social issues to the debate as politicians scrabble for votes from the previously disenfranchised Shi’a population of Iraq.

Current Iraqi law sets the legal age for marriage at 18, and allows no special privileges for members of particular religious sects, a limitation that Shi’a Muslims decry as discriminatory and out of touch. According to UNICEF, more than 24 percent of Iraqi women are married by age 18, and nearly five percent are married by age 15. These rates have risen since the fall of Saddam Hussein, whose secular Ba’ath Party oppressed Shi’a Muslims for the majority of his rule.

The draft law, submitted by the Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari, would cover Iraq’s Shi’a citizens and residents, a majority of the population of 36 million. Included in the proposed law’s 254 provisions, all based on Islamic jurisprudence, are clauses that would prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslims, prevent women from leaving the house without the permission of their husbands, and grant automatic custody in divorce cases to fathers.

The law appears to run counter to the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, ratified by Iraq in 1994—which expressly bans the legalization of child marriage—as well as Iraq’s own constitution, although al-Shimmari, himself a Shi’a, has dismissed critics of the bill. “By introducing this draft law, we want to limit or prevent” child marriage outside the legal system, according to al-Shimmari.

Women aren’t the only Iraqis whose rights would be curtailed under the proposed law: Article 63 of the JaafariLaw prevents Muslim males from permanently marrying non-Muslim females, only allowing temporary marriages for sexual pleasure (such marriages, called zawaj al-misyar or “traveller’s marriages,” are often seen as a way to engage in sexual relations in a licit manner).

It is unclear whether or not Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, supports the bill. Maliki, who is standing for a third term as leader, “has never said that he is with the law or against it," according to his spokesman. "What we have done is democratic. We took this to be discussed then voted on. We didn't object straight away.”