Friday, October 1, 2010

A Tea Party of A Different Sort: In Defense of Child Brides, Flower Girls, and First Holy Communicants

I have long been planning to do a post on the image above. This little girl has often been used as the image for blog posts on child brides in Saudi, and by extension, Islam. In fact, on Google Images this image was labelled "child-bride-saudi-arabia". Sorry, but to me she looks exactly like what she is, a little girl making her First Holy Communion, that is, the second sacrament of Catholicism, after Baptism, and before Confirmation, Marriage, and Death (with taking Holy Orders in there for those so inclined).

For those who have never been a little girl, or a Catholic, dressing up like a bride at the age of 6 is the best part of a First Holy Communion--especially for those of us not used to princess dresses and veils. Little boys dress up in little suits and ties. I think their mothers are happier about it than they are.

I showed this picture to my nephew (then 10) and asked what the little girl was wearing. His answer: "She's in her party dress." He hasn't been raised in the Church, and attends public school.

I was reminded of this image again when I came across another (mis)use of little girls in wedding-like garb as stand-ins for child brides. Although I had seen these images before, and seen them debunked, they have been given new Islamophobic life by the Tea Party and others.

The 2 photos above and the one below were supposedly taken at a Hamas sponsored mass wedding of 450 men, around 30 years old, to girls under 10, as evidence of Islamic normalcy ie pedophilia and child brides, with a little "in defiance of the West", and "poor Muslim girls" thrown in. The article accompanying them uses inflammatory, false, and vulgar language to misrepresent the Prophet, Bukhari, and contemporary Muslims. It can be read here, but is not worth copying into this post.

These little girls are called Gazan or Afghani child brides as the purpose suits the particular user of the image. The opening photo is also included in the article on Afghani child brides.

In fact, the little girls in the 3 images above are participating in a mass wedding celebration of women aged 18 and up (one 16 year old), as the equivalent of flower girls (almost as good as dressing up like a bride!), accompanied by the grooms/adult ushers (family members). The marriage contracts were all negotiated and signed prior. A Hamas sponsored mass wedding celebration would be an economic advantage for struggling Gazan grooms and families, no doubt, whatever the political benefits to Hamas, or not. In fact, this type of mass wedding celebration has been held for the last 10 years, and reported on in the mainstream media annually since 2007; yet, in 2009 this report was misrepresented and sent around the blogosphere, and forwarded by email. It has new life in 2010--Tea Party Movement election strategy?

The Gadsden flag has become the main flag of the Tea Party Movement. Unless one understands the symbolism of the rattle snake as the American Colonies, and the "Don't Tread on Me" as a Revolutionary message to England, one is likely to have more Biblical interpretations of this emblem, putting the Tea Party in a less favourable light.

Bloggers have been identified as at particular blame for spreading this particular bit of false information:

Tim Marshall, the journalist who presented the SkyNews video, was actually there at the mass wedding ceremony. In a blog post about his attendance, Marshall reiterates that the brides were elsewhere, noting that some of them were among the guests. He also writes:

The men and women are sitting, Most ignore the speeches, some even ignore the prayers. Then the fireworks explode, the cheering begins, and in march the Hamas scouts, bashing drums, looking every inch the future Hamas fighters many will be. Then the grooms, aged about 18 to about 28. They are holding hands with their young nieces and cousins, little girls aged from about 3 to 8, made up to the nines, wearing white wedding dresses.

Up they all go to the stage, the cheering and music grows ever louder. The girls were having the time of their lives, but, getting a little bored after a while, came down off the stage to dance with each other and play games.

Our report on this put it into context saying that it took place just a mile from the Israeli border and was a message from Hamas about its strength confidence and future fighters. Oh and that the brides were elsewhere. Pretty straightforward. It never struck me for a moment that the little girls might later be described in the bloggersphere as the brides! How naive I am.

Palestinian grooms, from the original AFP article (photo AFP)

Ultimately this sort of misrepresentation denigrates the issue of child brides for any number of cultures. Minimum ages of marriageability vary across the globe, and are dependent on cultural, social, and legal practices. In general, the most traditional cultures have the lowest ages of legal marriageability, or of practices in defiance of the law; these include majority Roman Catholic countries where the Church still holds immense power, like certain Latin American ones (Paraguay, Venzuela). Despite the enactment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act (women 18, men 21), by the British in 1929, applicable to pre-partition India, and now to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, South Asia still has the highest rates of child marriages, particularly in poor, rural, and traditional areas. South Africa, Sudan, and Tanzania have the lowest marriageable ages for females, especially with parental consent. Generally, where incomes are higher, the setting more urban, and public education available to girls/women, marriageable ages, and ages of actual marriages are higher.

Although adherence to Islamic Family law, as in Saudi, allows for--but does not encourage or mandate--the betrothal and contracting of marriage to children, it also precludes living with the husband until after menarche. In other Muslim majority countries with Sharia Family Law, teen marriages are allowed, but usually the lowest minimum age is 15 for females and higher for males. Most have ages limits of 18 for women and 18 or higher for men. These are similar to Western norms.

To describe child marriages as pedophilic is perhaps good for activism (although the best activism relies on facts), but is inaccurate except in a small minority of cases. Pedophilia is a sexual orientation marked by sexual arousal by children, not adolescents, not adults. Hebephilia is a more accurate term for a sexual orientation marked by sexual arousal by adolescents, not children, not adults. In most cases, those marrying young brides do not have a restricted sexual orientation, and continue in the same marriages with appropriate conjugal relations into later life.

Misrepresentation of child brides, sexual practices, and the law makes the unusual cases which come before the Saudi judiciary and are a social dilemma (and an even greater juridical one) seem the norm--as they are presented by some bloggers. Of course, even one is too many, but an accurate understanding of who is vulnerable (the children of the impoverished), why these marriages happen (debt), what recourse there is in Saudi law (divorce on menarche, ie pre-consummation, while still living with parents), and advocacy for revisions to the Saudi Family Code, or Moudawana, to set minimum marriageable ages, as has been done in other Muslim majority countries, would be more helpful aspects on which to focus.

The Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland © Bill Cooper; English National Ballet, Ballet Magazine.

Finally, this type of misrepresentation undermines the credibility of blogs, some of which adhere to better ethical practices than others. As I mentioned in the posts on Blogging and Ethics Parts I: ELSI and II ELSI--Tall Tales, Truthiness, and Big Hits!, bloggers dealing with such subjects have a moral and a legal responsibility to do a minimum of due diligence. This is particularly true of bloggers with relevent professional, career, or journalistic credentials which they highlight. It is also true of bloggers with a large following (and who knows when an old post or a longstanding blog will gather a large following), or bloggers who are seen to have expertise because of conjugal or geographical ties, or have a niche following. Otherwise, they are merely spinners of tall tales--ones with negative consequences for the people they are concerned about.

This little flower girl, also in the article on the Gazan wedding,
is often the alternate image on child bride posts for the communicant in the opening image to this post

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?

*The completion of this post, long in draft form, was jump started by Duha's excellent post on blogging ethics: Personal Letter to Saudi Women Bloggers. Thanks to Duha, of The Eternal Philosopher and Divan, for raising the issues she did, and for fostering an interesting discussion in the comments. I highly recommend reading both the post and the comments.


Qusay said...

This is exactly like how the fundamentalist take any western fashion magazine or movie or porn and extrapolate on how all western people are like this.

To the average person who does not know much or has not traveled or knew anyone out of his/her circle this becomes the reality of how the other lives in decadence.

I have noticed some blogs about Saudi, written by so called self labeled "authorities" use this picture, and take what makes the news (bad news) and generalize the whole society as that. If the whole society was like that, then it probably would not make the news, but hey, more blog hits = more fame and fame is a drug.

Thanks for clarifying this issue, many take those pictures and interpret them as bad as they want to... just shows you how good they really are.

Chiara said...

Qusay-thanks for weighing in on this! Very well put, and I agree with everything you wrote!

I hope others will share their experiences of these misrepresentations as well.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Great post Chiara, and thanks for the mention :-)

Shafiq said...

I thought the one comment underneath the tea-party article was very interesting. I think it shows that the movement encompasses a very broad range of political views.

Susanne said...

Thanks for your explanation of these photos. I remember when miniature brides and grooms were popular in weddings so that makes sense. Dress up fun for those little ones, hopefully! :)

jaraad said...

After reading and watching about the Tea party on news I no longer feel Fox News channel is the worst. Those people will destroy America if they get any bigger.

Majed said...

No one could have described astonishment and contempt at the distortion of reality and deliberate misinterpretation of those vivid and joyful photoes, in that unbelievable way, into a grim pedophilic images, better than Tim Marshall when he in his own word said ( It never struck me for a moment that the little girls might later be described in the bloggersphere as the brides! How naive I am).
That of course if I have got it right as (never struck me) meant never occured to me, only because it was followed by (how naive I am), otherwise (never struck me) would have meant that ( he was not surprised or shocked and was expecting it)I gues. It took me quite an effort to digest this ooofff and I dont go ahead untill i understand or feel or convince myself I did.
Chiara,as you know parents can not be so cruel as to give their daughter at very young age in marriage without genuine fears and concerns, and the traditions they follow are only a spectrum of particles that have crystalized across many centuries, centuries that have given them lessons on what do, taking into consideration the nature of the society they live in and have to face it in everyday life, it may be difficult to others to understand, but,this people have to live the real life. people 's traditions evolve as people themself evolve with time,traditions usually adopt the least evil choice of all choices,and this continuous over certain span of time,though some people stick to outdated and no more needed traditions
This true story might explain something.
One of my uncles who has many daughters, the eldest one then aged 9-10one day playing with her girl and boyfriends (we are very lenient) the next day there was some sort of party on her honor,only later I discovered that it was what you called her menarche, this girls grew up so fast that within a year and few months she was like Steffi Graff yet refused to quit playing out with her friends and climbing trees for fruit and riding bicycles jumping walls when kept behind doors I imagine how difficult it might have been to convince her that she is no more that same girl, even if they beat her. so the only way to get rid of her was to surrender her in marriage to someone who will take care of her, and spare my uncle the potential problems like sexual harrassment, seduction (since at that age she might have gone with anyone for a candy) or even get rapped, and all that could happen in reprisal that ensues and revenge and killing and so on she was 12 when she was married to a 22years old national team football player, and now she is 30 and her daughter is married she too was steffi graff junior but my uncle 's other daughters all graduated and married at least at 22 years, so at time one has to what he has to do.

oby said...

A while back I had seen this as someone sent it to me. I don't know how I ferreted it out, but I went on a search for more info and I found out that the little girls are not the brides at all. They are female relatives of the grooms standing in as part of the ceremony...the men later went on to marry their legal aged true brides. I promptly sent my new found info back to the sender(I forget now who it was) and told them if they are going to send such potentially damning stuff try to do at least a modicum of research before just regurgitating "facts".


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