Childhood Marriages Resurface in Iraq

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Some families in Iraq are reverting to an old practice: marrying off daughters and female dependents at younger and younger ages. It's thought that women who marry very young will be more attached to their homes and children. For some girls, though, a childhood marriage can be the beginning of a life of misery.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the hardships of war are spurring some Iraqi families to revert to an older way of seeking security for their daughters - marrying them off at younger ages. It's a system that worked in earlier times in rural areas, but in cities such as Baghdad it may be contributing to a high divorce rate that leaves young women with nowhere to turn.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Just before Ramadan is a favorite time for weddings in Iraq, just as June is the bride's month in the United States. These days in Baghdad, because of security concerns, weddings tend to be quieter, more private affairs.

Mr. AHMED ALI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: One tradition that's still followed, though, is that newly wed couples come to Ahmed Ali's photo studio to get a portrait made: brides in glowing white dresses, grooms trying to look serious in suits and ties. Ahmed Ali says he's noticed a new trend.

Mr. ALI: (Through translator) I don't ask about ages, but I'm getting brides who were born in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Some time back, a very young bride came in. She and her groom were very young. I don't know their age, but they were very young. You could feel that.

Ms. ZAMON HAMZA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Zamon Hamza was in one of those wedding photos, but it's not on her wall. She's divorced and living on the uncertain charity of an uncle who can barely support his own seven children. Zamon was married at 14, pregnant a month later.

Ms. HAMZA: (Through translator) This is our trend. A girl would marry while still a child so her parents will get rid of the responsibility or so that people won't criticize the father for turning away suitors.

FLINTOFF: At 16, Zamon looks older, especially with make-up and black eyeliner, but she still has a scattering of pimples, the topography of a teenager. She has a baby boy that she hasn't seen for six months. Under Iraqi law, children of a divorce nearly always go to the father's family.

Ms. HAMZA: (Through translator) And now I'm trying to go and see him, but my family wouldn't let me go. They say to me, leave him. Let him grow up and maybe one day he would come back to you.

FLINTOFF: Zamon says her husband's family influenced him to divorce her.

Ms. HAMZA: (Through translator) He was 16 when I married him, just an ignorant child who did whatever he was told to do. He wasn't ready to marry, but they made him do it so his children would grow up with him.

FLINTOFF: That's a common saying about people who marry very young - that their own children will grow up along with them. It's also said that a youthful marriage will make a woman become more passionately attached to her home and her children. But those are sentiments that are more often heard in rural Iraq and not in cities like Baghdad, where families are more likely to value education for girls. Delah Jumai(ph) is an advocate for women's rights who says the number of child brides is increasing by the day.

Ms. DELAH JUMAI (Women's Rights Advocate): (Through translator) Since 2003, things have become chaotic. Families are worried about their daughters. A daughter is a financial burden when unemployment is rife.

FLINTOFF: Families are concerned about their daughter's safety as well. Security is a worry for any unattached woman in Iraq, and even more for divorced women than for unmarried ones. Zamon Hamza's family wants her to contribute to the family income by returning to the work she did before she was married - serving as a maid in other people's homes.

Ms. HAMZA: (Through translator) But it's too dangerous for me as a divorced woman to work as a servant in a house with men. Of course, any man would be tempted when he sees a divorced maid, whether he liked me or not.

FLINTOFF: Zamon's friends remember her as an urchin with curly, reddish hair, who used to deliver bread in the neighborhood with her brothers. Today she's a women, dressed in a black embroidered abaya, the voluminous garment that drapes her from her head to her ankles. Even so, her aunt rebukes her for venturing too far into the street to welcome a guest.

Zamon says she's had marriage proposals lately, but that her uncle has refused them.

Ms. HAMZA: (Through translator) He said he would give me to someone he had in mind but I don't want to marry another man. I'm still hoping I can get back to my husband since we have a son.

FLINTOFF: Whether Zamon gets back to her husband or not, maybe there's hope for her. Ahmed Ali(ph), the photographer, says he noticing a parallel trend. Many people who come to him for wedding portraits are, what he calls, old aged. People who are finding each other in their 30s and 40s.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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