Reeaz Khan and the thirteen-year-old need our understanding

Stabroek News

June 4, 2004

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Dear Editor,

We should show patience and compassion to the businessman and the thirteen-year-old.

Because we cannot suppose that they do not genuinely love each other.

And so it is with an extreme distress that I regard, not from a distance, but from the nearness of our common experience, the latest in a long line of love dramas that is one of the particularities of this country.

Coming out of high school in the early seventies I witnessed, all about me, the playing out of those joyful acts of that mutual recognition that we called love. People all around me, young, fell in love. Many got married, or at least permanently hooked, still in their teens.

At that time, these matters still often took the traditional paths. Which is to say that, in the case of the Indo-Guyanese, all it required was a visit from the family of "the boy" or girl, and the future marriage was arranged. In the non-Indian Christian community, the boy generally presented himself in person. Or very rarely, he would "write home" affirming his sincerity, boasting of his prospects, confirming his religious denomination, and humbly requesting permission to start "courtening." There were books with examples of the type of proposal letter.

One realises now that, more often than not, it worked after this fashion. This was the way of "decent" people.

But there were cases where the love ended in complications. The least of these would be cases where one of the parties may not have been interested. Other complications arose in those instances where either or both of the party's parents would reject the idea of marriage. Stories of running away we all know. The parents, in many cases, reconciled themselves to the situation after the first child. We all also know that not all endings are happy. By which I mean to say that not a year passes but one of our young ones, in the power of those noble things, love and desire, things that would cause a fatal torment, give up all hope, and bring it all to a final end.

A young girl, under the leaden shadow of love, dragging heavy feet to the out-house at nightfall. In her hand, a small bottle of brown liquid, tattered love notes, a worn photo of the forbidden. Or a double-suicide, bringing an end, in each others arms, to the life of torture. Was it not last year that somewhere on the West Coast a twelve-year-old and her lover hanged themselves from a tree after a final tryst?

Juliet, in the Shakepearean drama, was 14 years old. The Virgin Mary, was also, in one of the Lives of Saints I read, about fourteen years old when she conceived of the holy spirit.

I do not therefore consider the thirteen-year-old inadmissibly young. For generations in this country Guyanese, and moreso Indians, married in their early teens. The legal age for the marriage of Indian girls was at one time, set at twelve. Amerindians started marital life also young. It wasn't considered statutory rape. But some were married younger or older than that. Let the protectors of the Jahaji culture now, on this occasion at least, publicly rage. "Is there no respect for the wisdom of the ancestors?"

It is interesting to note, now, the easy collusion between those usually howling about respect for Indian culture, and those who have absolutely no time for Indian culture but are steadfast in their preference for the models of the West. As I noted in the past, all the babble about preserving Jahaji tradition dies to a soundless whimper, then is muted, on those days when our Indo-Guyanese Creoles have to make real choices between preserving what they imagine to be their prestigious past, or staying aboard the "Soca boat." No one (at least until today) in any of our multitude of associations, any longer evokes the glorious 3000 years to offer argument and support to the couple concerned. Except for the Muslim clerics, it has been assumed; it would seem, that we ought to be following the once-Christian West down the road of delayed marriages, abortion on demand, contraception and the sour nights in the short-time parlours dotting the city.

Muslim people in this country have a right to practise their faith and legally marry when they wish. Bringing the legal age to sixteen would in fact be an assault on the right to freedom of religion which must be set out in our constitution. This is one of the issues here.

In much of the world today, Africa or India primarily, women are still married at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. In much of the western world, as for example in Europe, where it has been studied, women are beginning their sexual lives at fourteen. This is the average from the last published survey. In the USA surveys show sex statrts in the very early teens for many. These post-Christian cultures tolerate "conjugal" relations among the unmarried young, but limit access to the legal institution to those who have reached eighteen. In some cases, with parental consent, permission to marry may be given to those aged at least sixteen. In rare cases, people have married earlier.

The majority Muslim position is that the woman may be married within two years of her arrival at puberty. This is based on a prophetic tradition. Young marriages are not an obligation. But it is strongly recommended. And in many Muslim countries the school and university systems are adapted to it. For much of the history of mankind women have been married off young. This needs no further demonstration.

What is sociologically established is that the occident has extended the definition of childhood in its recent history. Others followed.

As to the questions of physical or emotional maturity, it is possible to observe young people much more mature than many of the older. And the argument about higher death rates from teenage pregnancy has been shown to be false or incomplete. Nature or better God, has established a minimum age for marrriage. Once puberty has passed and the person is no longer physically a child their sexuality emerges.

Also I do not consider the businessman inadmissibly old. The prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) already middle-aged, married Ayesha who was then nine, or twelve or eighteen, depending on the narrative. That was after divine intervention.

So to my mind, neither Reeaz, the businessman, nor the unnamed girl should be prevented from marriage. They have, by common consent, established a relationship. It is certain that they committed an error in starting a "living home" marital relationship without the proper rites and without telling the mother. Perhaps they knew the mother would not have agreed, and they were afraid. If they want to do the right thing now and apply to be married I think we should wish them well. Forgive and forget the past. And reflect on why and in imitation of whom all are now waxing hot about protecting the innocent when this is clearly not a case of rape or abduction.

I see in their ardour a condemnation of thousands of years of successful human civilisation when people had the opportunity to begin their sexual maturity in the cocoon of stable relations. I would wish them to explain what has changed, not in the laws, but in the actual conduct of the young they fancy as asexual. One of the good things about the civilisation the Jahajis brought here is precisely the example of stable and productive families. The ancestors of the Africans did no less. They later lost it. The consequences are those figures of two out of three being illegitimate which recur whenever we look at Afro-Creole populations almost everywhere in the New World. We marry older. We fornicate, for the most part, in the preceeding years. So even if sixteen would be the minimum age, most Guyanese would never allow their children to be married at that age. They would favour prolonging their education. This is a systems problem now.

The girl's mother needs her fears considered. She seems to regard the relationship as "exploitation" of her innocent daughter by an older predator. The daughter, running away this weekend, has given clear indication of her consent. And still we may not know the whole story.

Reeaz and the girl, if they believe themselves to be sincere, as apparently they do, need our tolerance, understanding and compassion. I am sure that the judge will consider all the circumstances before deciding if he will allow the marriage. They need also to avoid despair in these trials.

Yours faithfully,

Abu Bakr