"The day I was married I knew I would divorce. I didn't really understand what it meant to be married and mother, but I knew I do not want to be married. I wanted to be a normal teenage girl. Go to school and chat with my friends. But 25 years ago the decision was not mine. I was forced to marry a guy I barely knew. Love was definitely not in the air."
While many Arab and Bedouin women are marrying and having children in Israel every year, their peers are still in high school and preparing for enlistment in the army.
According to the 1950 Marriage Age Law, minors are permitted to marry at age 17. Although marriage prior to this age constitutes a crime, (assuming there are no mitigating circumstances, like pregnancy or birth). The law was legislated in 1950 and is considered progressive for its time, but in most European countries, in the US and even in Iraq, the legal marriage age is 18. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 there were 636 brides aged 16 and under (most were married between 2005 and 2007 and registered late with the Interior Ministry). Brides aged 17 numbered 1.455 and bridges aged 18 reached 2,519.
Hanna, who is now 41 years old, was married when she was 16. Today she recalls the mistake she made then. "My parents immigrated to Israel from Georgia, where it is customary to marry girls at a very young age. My father passed away and my mother was left alone with young children, so for her it was a relief to have me married at a young age. I met my husband through the arrangement and didn't really understand what I was getting into. Facts were created for me."
Hanna quickly became pregnant and decided to stay with her husband until the kids grew up. "From the start I knew this was not the person I want to grow old with, but I did want my children to grow up with a father figure." She left high school and did not study for many years, despite her ambitions. "I didn't go into the army and didn't experience a normal teenage upbringing. Only once my children had grown up did I complete my studies and even went on to so a master's degree but I know I missed out on the formative years of my life."
'The girls had no idea what they were getting into'
According to a position paper prepared by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status, the number of Muslim girls that are married is double that of Jewish girls. At ages 16-17 the gap is four times as big. Most girls under age 16 who are married in Israel are Muslim. In 2006, 150 Muslim girls married before reaching their 16th birthday. For the sake of comparison, in that same year, six Jewish girls married at that age and 10 from other religious backgrounds. There are also Palestinian girls younger than 16 who are "imported" for the purpose of marriage. In 2007, 32 girls were "imported" for this purpose and married to Israeli men. In 2008 1,665 girls aged 14-18 gave birth in Israel, 77% of which were Muslim.
The authority that authorizes marriage below the legal age is the family courts. Among Muslims, the Sharia courts issue marriage authorizations retroactively and are supposed to report it to the police as required. However the reality is quite different.
Talking to Ynet, Rackman Center's chairperson, Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, said that the law in Israel is not enforced. Thus, for example, in 2007, 166 women under 16 years of age were married. Only 20 requests were submitted to the courts and only two cases were filed with the police and ultimately closed due to lack of public interest.
A., a young Beduoin woman from northern Israel, is currently completing her bachelor's degree in law. Both her brothers, aged 21 and 32, obtained a higher education abroad. "Despite the fact that my parents are not educated, they made sure we did get an education. I considered my family to be modern and progressive and that's why I was surprised when two years ago, both my brothers married cousins of ours who were only 16 years old. My parents did not object, as they wanted my brothers to be married. I tried explaining to my brothers that these girls were too young and not ready for marriage, but they did not listen."
According to A., "My older brother said he wanted to be with someone who has not yet seen the world, so he could educate her and mold her as he saw fit. I also spoke with the mother of these girls, who herself married at a young age and likes to tell the story of how, when she was that age, she would wait for her husband to arrive to give her money to go buy candies. I believe these girls did not understand what they were getting themselves into and a lot of pressure was exerted on them."
Warda ElKranawi, the coordinator of SHATIL's Bedouin Women's Leadership Project coordinator in Beer Sheva, says that unfortunately, in recent years the subject has actually received less attention. "Men prefer to marry very young women who have no experience. This is evident even among the educated. Beyond the damage this causes women, who are not mature or knowledgeable enough to run a household, it is also a serious blow to our society. A child who does not receive proper support and education at home will not grow up to become a responsible citizen, and our society continues to go in this problematic direction."
The girls themselves, explains ElKranawi, are willingly marrying at such a young age: "Girls only 15 years old dream of getting married, because they understand it to be the way to independence. After all, if you are 20 or older, you may be married as a second wife. Even if a woman has obtained an education, she will not be independent. Her parents will continue to make decisions for her."
Deputy Minster Gila Gamliel is working on changing the legislation by raising the marriage age to 18 and toughening the conditions for receiving special authorization and increasing regulation: "Even when the marriage is not consecrated under coercion, it is difficult to say that it was done consensually since the girls are so young. It leads to immature motherhood, ignorance and the perpetuation of poverty. High percentages of the girls suffer from physical violence, economic exploitation and emotional abuse. Their lives are in the hands of their families and their husbands."
The entities dealing with this issue are not sure that raising the legal age will necessarily help the situation. "I don't know how much it can help since, in Israel, people get married through religious institutions. The social reforms must go much deeper," says SHATIL's ElKranawi.
Circumventing the law
Tatiana, 25, who married at age 15 and a half and is mother to four children, believes changes to the law will not actually bring about change: "I was ready and in love and for people like me I don't think it will make a difference. Even if they change the legal marriage age to 30, people will simply live together."
Despite losing out on an education, she has no regrets. "We were young and very in love, and I knew I wanted to marry him. My mother raised me by herself and from a very young age I learned to manage on my own, cook and clean. I tried convincing my husband to wait till I was 18 to get married, but he did not want to hear it. At 17 I already became a mother and a year later I had another child. I quit my studies and never worked. Now, with my children grown up, I want to study and have a profession, because I feel that I was left behind. My children no longer need me like they used to and I am currently looking to register for courses."
Hanna is also doubtful the new legislation will have any effect: "I do not believe the law will change anything. There are communities in Israel that are completely isolated, who will always find a way. I know a family that decided to marry their daughter at age 14. The community rabbi gave his blessings and only after she became pregnant, did the court issue an authorization. I believe that in other closed communities like it, people will find ways to circumvent the law. There are certain cultures in which this is so firmly ingrained that no law will help."
Professor Halperin-Kaddari strongly believes that the state must raise the legal marriage age: "We must align ourselves with international norms. Early marriage generally lead to early motherhood and international studies have shown that as a result, women suspend their education and their socioeconomic status remains low. Studies have also proven a strong connection between early marriage physical violence. This usually occurs in closed communities and we as a state must protect our children."
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