Taking a U-turn on its decision from a fortnight ago, the Senate Standing Committee on Interior cleared a bill seeking an increase in the marriageable age for women to 18 with a majority vote. However, PML-N and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) members still opposed the bill for being un-Islamic.
Moved by PPP Senator Sehar Kamran, The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2017 suggests the minimum age women can be married be raised from 16 to 18. The committee had on Oct 11 rejected the bill after declaring it un-Islamic even though the mover of the bill was not present during the meeting. Three other bills were deferred in the same meeting because the movers were absent.
Due to the criticism that ensued, the next day the chairman of the committee, Senator Rehman Malik, said the bill will be reconsidered the next day after getting input from all stakeholders.
The bill was included on the agenda items for the committee meeting on Monday and at the very start of the discussion, PML-N Senator Javed Abbasi said the bill should not be discussed at all as the committee had already rejected it.
Senator Malik said the bill will be reconsidered as there was confusion over it. He said the Quaid-i-Azam had filed a bill before the partition due to which the marriageable age was raised to 16 years.
PML-N Senator Abbasi says marrying off girls soon after puberty decreases burden on Darul Aman
Ms Kamran argued that someone below the age of 18 years cannot enter into a legal contract and that marriage is also a contract. She said mother and child mortality is three times higher in girls of less than 20 years of age. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has recommended that the minimum marriageable age should be 18 and Pakistan is signatory to UN conventions which also call for the same, she argued.
Senator Kamran said girls are deprived of an education when they are married off young and that their physical and mental health is also compromised. She added that the Sindh and Punjab assemblies have passed similar legislations in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
Shairah Academy Director General Dr Mohammad Munir, who was invited to give his opinion, said the issue should not be linked to religion and suggested the marriageable age be increased to 18 years because those younger than that cannot fulfil the responsibilities of marriage.
“It is brutal to allow young girls to be married,” he said.
Rights activists Ambreen Ajaib, Valarie Khan and Mina Gabina also supported the bill and said other Muslim countries had also fixed the minimum age to marry between 18 and 21 years.
They said it was also unfair that the minimum age for men to marry is 18 and that for women is 16.
Senator Abbasi opposed the bill and said there is no need to follow other countries. He said this is an Islamic issue and that the matter of marriages should be left to parents to decide as they know what is best for their children.
JUI-F’s Haifz Hamdullah had come into the room to get an answer about a query of his from the chairman. Senator Abbasi welcomed him and said he was glad a religious scholar was finally in the room.
He suggested his opinion be sought as he did not think of Dr Munir as a scholar.
Senator Malik said he will not allow a Senator who is not a member of the committee to speak on the issue to which Mr Hamdullah said he knows he is a persona non grata but he will play his role in ensuring the bill is not passed by parliament.
When asked, Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Secretary Dr Ikramul Haq said the CII cannot formally give an opinion as it does not have a head but according to a recommendation given in 2012, a girl over the age of nine and who has reached puberty can be married off and that a 15-year-old can be married off even if she has not reached puberty.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Senator Shibli Faraz said he was disappointed by the recommendation and that the council “should come with clear advice on issues of ijtihad because vague recommendations become a matter of embarrassment,” he said.
Senator Abbasi intervened and said there are also other issues to consider for instance the orphaned girls in the Darul Aman who are married off after reaching puberty which also decreases burden on the Darul Aman. He said Islam allows for girls to be married off after they reach puberty, he said.
Mutahida Qaumi Movement’s Tahir Hussein Mashhadi supported the bill and said children lose their innocence and childhood due to early marriages. Barrister Mohammad Ali Saif and Shibli Faraz also supported the bill and though another PML-N leader, Senator Chaudhry Tanvir said he was personally in favour of the bill, he will not support anything against Islam.
The bill was passed by the committee with a simple majority and will be tabled in the upper house for voting next.