Send Girls Off to Learn, Not Off to Marry, Says 13-Year-Old Pakistani Activist
By David McNair

(This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, telling the stories of young people around the world who are following the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai to break down cultural and political barriers to champion children’s and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary  He Named Me Malala , produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.)

Hadiqa Bashir was just 10 years old when her grandmother pressured her into marriage—but, she says, a friend’s experience convinced her otherwise.

“One of my classmates married when we were in the sixth grade,” recalls Bashir, now 13, who spoke to TakePart from her hometown in Pakistan’s Swat Valley (the same hometown as another famous young activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai ). “We were happy at first, but then I saw how she suffered. She was beaten many times by her husband’s family. I saw the scars, and it scared me.”

Bashir decided to turn to her uncle, a longtime rights activist. She didn't want to get married, she told him—she wanted to continue her studies instead. The two confronted her grandmother, who was so angry over the decision, she refused to speak to them for months. But, Bashir says, she eventually made her understand.

The experience inspired her to become an activist against child marriage in Pakistan, a practice which often ends young girls' education and puts them at risk for physical and sexual abuse. Together with her uncle, Erfaan Hussein Babak—who has since become her partner in fighting for women’s rights—they co-founded the organization Girls United for Human Rights in 2014 to speak out against the practice.

“I realized that many other girls would suffer like my classmate, and that’s when I decided to start this campaign,” she says. “Educate your children, don’t make them marry early, give them freedom. That is my message.”

Indeed, the two go hand-in-hand: delaying marriage is associated with greater educational achievement, and a lack of education leads to more child marriages, according to a 2014 World Bank  report ,  Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity. In 18 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, girls with no education were six times more likely to marry during childhood than girls with a high school education.

Child marriages are most prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even more so in religiously conservative communities like Swat. In these patriarchal cultures, it's common for local religious leaders to unofficially sanction marriages between girls as young as nine years old to men in their 50s and 60s. Seven percent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 15, and 40 percent are married before they are 18, according to UNICEF.

Through her campaign, Hadiqa goes door-to-door in her community, raising awareness about girls’ rights and the dangers of child marriage. She intervenes wherever possible if she hears about a young girl being forced to marry.

“We live in a constricted society,” says Hadiqa, “and I am going against the paternal system.”

To date, she says she has convinced five families in her community not to force their young daughters into early marriage. Earlier this year, she stopped one family from marrying off their 7-year-old daughter.

Others girls have not been so fortunate.

Shahida was married when she was seven years old, Hadiqa recalls. Now 17, she has a 2-year-old son. In the early years of her marriage, Shahida was too small to take on domestic chores around the house, angering her mother-in-law so much that she accused Shahida of having affairs with other men. As punishment, her husband cut off her nose to disfigure her.

“My uncle is providing her legal aid and we have also referred her for medical aid and now she has been undergoing reconstructive surgery for her nose,” says Hadiqa. “She has had her second surgery and now, with our help, she is recovering.”

But their work doesn't come without risks. Some accuse her of going against Islam.

“It’s dangerous for Hadiqa when she talks of Islam, and she must be careful at this point,” says her uncle. “Child marriages are considered sacred things here by religious leaders. It’s a norm of society.”

Religious hardliners have claimed that child marriage is sanctioned by the Qur’an, citing Prophet Mohammad’s marriage to Ayesha when she was nine years old. But Ayesha’s age has always been in dispute, with many believing she was at least 19. Opponents also point out that the Qur’an condemns child marriage, often citing this passage: “O You who have chosen to be graced with belief! It is not lawful for you to force women into marrying or holding on to them in marriage against their will.” (Qur’an, 4:19)

“Child marriage is not Islamic,” Hadiqa insists.

Often, she is misunderstood by families, who think she is trying to prevent girls from getting married at all.

“I am not against marriage,” she says. “I just want girls to get married when they are at least 18, so that they can go to school and have a childhood.”

Three years into her work, Hadiqa is now starting to gain international attention. In September, she became the youngest recipient of a Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for her activism against child marriage in Pakistan. The award has helped boost her morale, she says, and Bashir's parents have also expressed support for her cause.

“She is not only my daughter but the daughter of the entire Pakistan,” her mother, Sajda Ifthikar, told Dawn.com. “The award will give her high courage. She will work more actively against early and forced marriages, and we will support her in her mission.”

Still, Bashir acknowledges she has no illusions about completely stopping the practice.

“This cannot be stopped in my lifetime,” she says. “But I hope more girls will have a better future.” 


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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