In late September 2017, Fatima Abu Miyala, aged 14, arrived at an Israeli military checkpoint in the city of Hebron. The Palestinian media initially reported that she had been arrested for carrying a knife with the intention of stabbing Israeli soldiers, but it later transpired that she had fled from the home of her husband following a forced marriage.
The Palestinian news agency WAFA reports that Miyala's case, which shed light on the phenomena of underage marriage and "customary" marriage in Palestinian society, sparked extensive public debate on this topic. The report quoted Sumoud Al-Damiri, head of the personal status department at the office of the Palestinian chief qadi, as saying that there has recently been an increase in such marriages in the Palestinian Authority (PA) territories, and that her department has handled three such cases in the last few months, one of them involving a girl who had given birth at the age of 13. Al-Damiri added that Fatima's husband admitted during questioning that he had paid NIS 2,000 (about $570) to the matchmaker and a further sum to Fatima's father, and that the marriage ceremony had been performed by a sheikh unauthorized to conduct marriages.
In response to the incident, Muwaffaq Matar, a columnist for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, penned an article in which he scathingly condemned the phenomenon of urf (i.e., "customary") marriages, which are performed as a way to avoid conducting the marriage at the state's official religious or civil institutions, inter alia in order to facilitate underage marriage. Titled "Don't Forgive Us, Fatima," the article states that the young girl preferred to risk her life by approaching an Israeli military checkpoint rather than stay in her husband's home and continue living within Palestinian society, which is responsible for her suffering. Matar noted that, while talking of national liberation and seeking to join international human rights bodies, Palestinian society and institutions violate the rights of women and children by tolerating benighted customs, like the one permitting underage marriage.
The following are excerpts from Matar's article:
Muwaffaq Matar (image: alwatanvoice.com)
"We do not yet know what circumstances led 14-year-old Fatima Abu Miyala to approach a checkpoint of the Israeli occupation army on September 27, 2017. But we do know that the girl decided to escape the hell and the tyranny of [her] social heritage, and cast herself into the flames that could have consumed her for no return [or] for a smaller price than the price that was exacted from her by the peddlers of underage marriage and the sultans of [our] benighted and primitive norms and social customs.
"Fatima's action opened up a wound that we thought had already healed. This child, who, [it turns out,] is innocent of carrying a knife with the intention of stabbing the occupation soldiers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, turned on a warning light regarding our process of social, national and cultural liberation even before she said to us, in deed rather than word: 'I will approach those who stole my homeland, even if they kill me, [for] I do not want to live among you, where my soul is being raped every day. I may be able to win back and purify my land, but my soul and my spirit, which have been raped, shall be an eternal curse upon your benighted perceptions, laws and customs.'
"They forced this child Fatima to take a husband under the pretext of 'urf [customary] marriage, but the young girl refused to sell her body and her soul as her parents, and the greedy peddlers of 'urf marriage, wanted her to do. That is why she crossed the red lines and put her life at risk, [accepting] the slander that might besmirch her good name in order to teach us about the atrocities and sins we commit against our daughters and against our future generations and tell us: do not give away our souls and our bodies, as they used to do [to girls] in the pre-Islamic era...
"Those trapped in the obsessive idea [that men can] own a woman's body at any price, under the guise of 'urf marriage, wish to justify their sin and lend it religious legitimacy within their own social circles. They do not consider the attacked girl or her rights, nor do they give the slightest consideration to her ability [to adapt] to the profound change in her life, in terms of her cognitive maturity and her mental constitution, [which should be considered] even before her physical constitution. [But] most important of all is her ability to say 'yes' or 'no' freely, without the numerous circles of society rushing to trap her and coerce her – starting with the immediate circle, which can be her father or mother, and culminating with the legislators and the laws, which have not yet been amended. [These laws] have become a crutch for those who wish to satisfy their desires, their urges and their sexual perversions by marrying a woman who is legally [still] a child!
"It is inconceivable that a girl of 13 gave birth as part of an 'urf marriage, which means that she was taken captive and led [to the slaughter] at the age of 12. When this happens to a girl so young, or to [any] underage girl, it can only be characterized as captivity and is comparable to kidnap and torture – even if the sinner [who did this to her] bound her with [chains of] gold or lay her in a bed of honey!...
"This is happening in our land while we brandish slogans of liberation and rights, and vie with [other] nations in joining international organizations [dedicated to] women's and children's rights, and while Palestinian jurists are drafting the most modern laws, compatible with international conventions. However, we are apparently afraid to touch the flames of heritage and of customs that lack validity under both shari'a and civil law – even though we know the fire will eventually reach [and burn] us. Like others, we wait for fate to surprise us or for change to be imposed upon us.
"This is happening in our land even though President Mahmoud 'Abbas demands, at every opportunity, to reexamine the personal status laws and the marriage laws, and to adapt Palestinian law to the principles of human rights that are upheld by the UN and by international human rights conventions.
"Those interested in polygamy or in committing the felony of marrying an underage girl find refuge in our society, whose laws are flexible and allow them to satisfy their desires and urges...
"We must mobilize the political, social, intellectual and legal circles, and have them dedicate their resources to examining the facts and studying the problems faced by the victim [of underage marriage], who lives in a dungeon of fear, experiencing physical and mental pain and torment. We must increase the involvement of the legal institutions, in order to address this while also granting the necessary protection to the victims, no matter what the cost. This, we believe, will be the finest expression of our principles of liberation and our values...
"Do not forgive us, Fatima, until we liberate you and the laws followed by our courts, and prevent them from becoming a crutch for oppressors."