In the States, we tend to see the existence of child brides as an indicator of backwardness of a culture. Many of us have this hackneyed stereotype in our minds of a 15 year old being forced by her parents to marry a strange and cruel older man. And while this does happen in the world, and far too often, I want to add texture and depth to the image of the child bride. I want to dig into the incentives which cause many young women to not only agree to marriage, but to seek it out for themselves.
In Morocco, as of 2004, one legally must be of at least 18 years to marry, but unfortunately, this law hasn’t done much to stop the practice of early marriage. According to UNICEF’s “State of the World’s Children,” about 16% of girls in Morocco are married before the age of 18. While it’s hard to know the accuracy of these statistics, from the slice of the country that I’ve experienced, 16% seems about right. In fact, at the very first and only wedding I’ve been to here, the bride was only sixteen, and no one seemed to blink an eye.
Please take my following observations with a grain of salt, as they certainly cannot contain the whole picture. I have by no means seen the whole country, and am well aware that circumstances vary widely between the countryside and the cities, and the north and the south. Also, with language and cultural barriers, I am aware that it is impossible for me to understand such a complex situation completely. Here are what I see to be the reasons that inspire girls to marry young:
Love: When I asked one of my friends why a fifteen year old would want to marry, her only response was “love.” As cheesy as it sounds, if you put it in the cultural context, it makes perfect sense. Remember the first time that you felt love for a person. Or infatuation, or lust, or any of those tingly feelings. Now add in the cultural factor that dating, at least in my small town, is seen as highly inappropriate. This is not the kind of culture where you casually introduce your boyfriend to the parents or dance together at Prom. The only way that you can get any quality time with someone of the opposite sex, in a way that is culturally appropriate, is to get married to them.
Intimacy: These probably should just be the same bullet point, but if you’re a girl, and you’re playing by the rules, that means no to not just sex, but to kissing, holding hands, and you know, the joy of just being alone in a room with someone you like a whole lot. But while the culture has its own standards, it’s not like there isn’t exposure to western influence. You might still listen to Beyonce or watch The Titanic. You’re sure to be aware of all the raunchy things people are doing just across the Mediterranean (or just after the wedding vows) and might want to participate as well.
Status: More than once here, I have been asked point blank: are you are girl or a woman? From an American context, this is a ridiculous question, but from spending some time here I know what they are really asking: are you unmarried or married? I could be 35 years old, but as long as I was unmarried, I would still be considered a girl. And this categorization carries weight. It defines which parts of the wedding festivities you are to participate in and which topics of conversation women will engage with you in. It even defines what you should wear in public. From what I can tell, there’s not much that instantly boosts your status like getting married. Remember how cool it was to be one of the first ones to have a boyfriend in high school? I’ve been told that sometimes it the same thing here. Girls feel a sense of pride in being the first ones to be married.
Security: There is only one high school in the area that I live which serves not only the students who are from this town, but also from the surrounding regions. However, there is not good public transportation into the center, so students from farther towns often have no choice but to leave their homes and live at the boarding house. If the students graduate and choose to go to college, then they will move even farther from home as there is not a university within a three hour drive. Finally the only jobs in my town that are filled by women are teaching and nursing, but those positions are commonly filled by outsiders. So what this means, is that if you are a woman who wants to have a career, you most-likely have to leave your family and its built in support networks, for good.
In an American context, this would be considered relatively normal. However, Morocco is a communal culture where girls typically live with their parents until they marry. Moving away from family is not the preferred choice, especially as a girl’s safety (and purity) hold special value. It could seriously damage a girl’s chance in marriage if she is thought to have lost her virginity. Therefore, parents must be willing to take a significant financial and security risk in order to support the education of their daughter. Their daughter, must also be at the top of their class to prove that this is a risk worth taking. So, what if instead of moving outside of the comforts of your neighborhood to struggle for a career, you could just marry your wealthy neighbor who owns the cafe? It might be the easier choice.
Family Issues: Another common reason that I’ve found that women marry young is for family issues. Say your parents died when you are young; you could either be placed into the house of a relative, or, you could carve out a new life for yourself, as a wife.
I think westerners tend to see marriage as something that is forced down upon young girls and while it’s hard to tell the exact amount of power girls have in designing their futures, we need to look at the situation from their position. Reflecting back at my sixteen year old self, if I had the opportunity to get out of school and spend some quality time with the cute store owner, all while establishing my secure position in society as a woman, and maybe wealthy one too, I might have done so. If we are interested in understanding and curbing young marriage, we shouldn’t simply jump to incriminating the parents or the husbands, but we should take a more nuanced look at the situation, addressing the real incentives that young women find in marriage.