We continue to wrestle with the sticky question of minimum age for marriage around the United States and the implications it has for children, particularly young girls. The minimum age debate is still best left to the individual states in my opinion, but in too many places there are safeguards missing. A story from Time Magazine this week highlights how open to abuse the system can be, particularly in certain communities where religious “traditions” leave girls open to potential exploitation. They feature the story of a young Muslim girl in California identified by only her first and middle names, Sara Tasneem. She was “married” off by her father at the age of 15 to a 28 year old man she had never met before and turned over to him with virtually no notice.
Sara Tasneem was 15 years old when she was married off to a 28-year old stranger. Her parents were divorced, and her deeply conservative father was a member of a Muslim sect in California. When she went to visit him during high school, “He told me I was going to have to get married and the Sheikh was going to pick who I was going to get married to,” she recalls. “I never questioned my dad, ever.” …
Tasneem’s case illustrates how few protections are available to young brides if their parents are the ones encouraging early marriage. She met her husband the same day as their spiritual marriage ceremony in 1996. “I was introduced to him that morning and I was handed over to him physically that night,” she said. “I remember asking, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ and they wouldn’t answer me. They just handed me over to this guy that I didn’t know.” She suspects that her husband, who was a new convert to the group, was enticed to the sect by the possibility of marrying a virgin.
In this scenario there clearly should be a case to be made for statutory rape charges. The minimum age of consent in California with parental permission is sixteen, but this child was whisked out of the country with her new “husband” at the age of 15. They returned to the states and were married with the father’s consent after she was 16 and already pregnant. Later on she manged to escape and get a divorce, but only after she had two children and was on her own without even a high school diploma.
This young girl’s case is probably closer to the worst case scenario than most, but it reminds us yet again of how open this system is to abuse. More westernized girls may well be aware of their rights and seek help if their family seeks to marry them off in this fashion, but coming from a strictly conservative Muslim family, Sara simply did what she was told and essentially became a sex slave who was trafficked out of the country.
So how do we deal with this? Should all states make the minimum age 18 and eliminate the parental consent exception? That’s a harsh remedy to the problem because it would eliminate the option of pregnant teens under the age of 18 being able to marry the child’s father if the families felt that he was sincere and they were going to make a serious go of it. Admittedly that’s not the most advantageous way to start out in life, but without that option on the table the girl’s family might be pushed in the direction of looking at an abortion or have the girl winding up as a single mother.
Assigning some sort of child welfare services monitor to examine such cases before the marriage is approved might provide some relief, but that solution has its own set of problems inherent in it. First of all, it’s a rather heavy-handed, nanny state solution which takes power away from families and puts it in the hands of the state. Also, child protective services don’t exactly have the best record in many places when it comes to efficiency and the best interests of families.
So what to do? Most of our laws were written with the assumption that caring parents would do what’s best for their offspring. If that link in the chain fails, our options are few to say the least. Yet again, I don’t have an ideal solution to offer but I’d love to hear some from smarter folks and perhaps get them in front of some state legislatures for consideration.