How does a mother feel the night before she sends her 8 year old daughter to be married?
Married to a 40 year old man?
This question had plagued me after seeing the news article about an 8 year old Yemeni girl who died on her “wedding night”. The headline alone shook me so horribly that it took days for me to read the actual article. Even while accepting that I have read only one version of this story, and as an adult knowing that behind the reported news is often a more complicated version of the truth, I am still sure that the bare bones of this news story is exactly what it sounds like: a child being given to serve as a wife, in all its roles including sexual, to a grown man 5 times her age. Initially, like many of you perhaps, my mind was riddled with the horrific idea of this poor child, being taken into this disgusting “relationship” ( a word that hugely misrepresents this situation). At some point my thoughts took a shift from this 8 year old who died of internal bleeding, suffering a death most of us should never ever have to face as a possibility. My thoughts turned to her mother and I did not know how to feel about her, or for her.
When I became a mother myself, and by that I mean within the first months of pregnancy, something changed for me in regard to priorities. When my children were born, the biggest shift in my life occurred, and yes it sounds like a cliche but my life was truly changed forever. Even with all its stressful days and nights, fatigue and vexation, being a parent is a gift I would not ever refuse. My husband recalls me struggling out of my wheelchair after my c-section that came after 12 hours of labor, still sick from a fever during delivery, struggling to see my children in their bassinet, and weeping, and weeping. I cannot describe entirely what I was feeling, but from that moment my number one priority in life has been to keep them safe, and happy. I do this without thinking, and 100% willingly.
Did this mother of the 8 year old Yemeni girl feel that same way? I of course assumed that she did and this article is not about a mother not loving her children, far from it. I do not think the vast majority of child marriage situations stem from lack of parental love for the child. What I have struggled with is understanding, and accepting, that different cultures will influence a mother’s instinctual protection of her child, even to the point of willingly sending her to this horrible situation of child marriage.
How does it feel for a mother sending her child off to a situation in which you know she is almost assured of suffering? I can only imagine how heart wrenching it would be and hope never to know a situation even close. Even if this child did not die on her “wedding night” (a term so grotesquely inappropriate here that I cannot repeat it again), any person with even rudimentary knowledge of what typically happens between husband and wives would know this child would be suffering. They would know that if she survived the several years of what was essentially child sexual abuse, she would eventually become pregnant too early and have a high chance of dying in childbirth or experiencing complications of childbirth. And these say nothing about the other aspects of her life, her obviously low standing in society and in her marriage situation into which she had been given or traded.
But these are words coming from me, a woman born and raised in the western world, one whose mother infused in her the sense of you-can-do-anything from the day she was born. I am a physician and a wife, respected at work and in a marriage where I am seen and appreciated as an equal. I expected nothing less growing up and sought out both of those situations with purpose. Largely I count my mother’s influence as the driving force, and perhaps some inherent stubbornness of personality on my part.
What if my mother was instead this Yemeni mother, who would be expected to yield to the decisions made by her husband and village/town, no matter the outcome for her children? What if my mother was made to know that she had no choice, no power, and that her daughters had to serve larger roles in terms of satisfying family debts or honor?
Questions only lead to more questions.
How much does your own personality play a role? Would I as a Yemeni woman send my daughter off to be married at 8, to a 40 year old man? I would like to say no, that no culture or threat could make me send my child off to a life of pain. But that is my westernized and independent mind talking. If I was taught I had no power, and my decision was worthless, would I somehow speak out anyway? How much does culture and ingrained societal status of being at the bottom of the rung match up against individual questioning/stubbornness/resistance? Did this Yemeni woman ever think, “this is wrong and I won’t send my daughter?” Did she even think there was a choice? Maybe she cried the night before as she explained to her daughter what would happen the next day, and dressed her hair and kissed her goodnight, hoping maybe her daughter’s husband-to-be would be kind, and thoughtful and not touch this child until she was much, much older. Maybe the mother made herself believe in a miracle that frequently does not come to fruition in male dominated societies.
I need to believe that she did atleast consider fighting back. There are women all around the world who break that mold of subservience, and this is one big way to bring about cultural changes. Women and men refuse to accept the current state of things, question it, challenge it and sometimes suffer for their actions. Slave women have chosen death for themselves and their children rather than continue a line of slavery and suffering, a choice that can be seen as either heroic or cowardly depending on your point of view. Women have fled genital mutilation and arranged marriages, they have learned to drive, they have gone to school, they have run for office and spoken out in marriages, small groups and large meetings. They have been shot at, beaten, abused, imprisoned and some killed. Where one falls, another one rises, sometimes immediately and sometimes years later.
Big changes start on relatively smaller scales, like my mother as a teen refusing to continue the rules of her father’s house that women not wear pants. Her mother, my grandmother also rebelled against her husband’s preferred family dress code, and the seed was planted.
Maybe those men who talk about women’s independence being a “disease” are right in a way: it is a genetic disease of the mind and of the soul that spreads, often from mother to daughter, like a gene amplified from generation to generation until one day we see the full expression of a female who stands up against something big. A husband. A village. A nation. A culture or a religion. A woman who says “no.”
Hopefully somewhere around the world, against all cultural expectations, a woman is whispering to her daughter that she will not be married off as a child, . She will instead get an education, and marriage, if and when it comes, will be at a later time. Her daughter will be thoughtful and nod in agreement. And the gene amplification begins.