In Indonesia, the current legal age of marriage for girls is 16. But a group of female Islamic clerics just made their own move to prompt a change to that policy. In what some media outlets called "the first major gathering of female Muslim clerics," the group of predominantly Indonesian clerics issued a fatwa against child marriage. And though the edict carries no legal weight, it will have influence in determining the policy for child marriage going forward.
According to Merriam-Webster's definition, a fatwa is "a legal opinion or decree handed down by an Islamic religious leader." For Westerners, arguably the most famous fatwa was issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie.
But fatwas are actually quite common, with many issued each year in Indonesia by the nearly all-male Indonesian Ulema Council. The recent congress of female Muslim clerics issued several fatwas in addition to their prohibition on child marriage, including one dealing with the sexual abuse of women.
Still, the main spotlight is on the stance taken against a practice that is pervasive in Indonesia. According to Girls Not Brides, one in seven Indonesian girls is married off before her 18th birthday.
In fact, the rate of child marriage in Indonesia is likely higher. In certain areas, like West Sulawesi, the practice of marrying girls off before the age of 15 is "a deeply entrenched cultural tradition." Girls Not Brides also lists a range of factors that contribute to child marriage occurrences in Indonesia, from poverty and economic dependence to a lacking access to proper education and medical services. They also point out that the rigid gender norms enforced throughout Indonesia play a role in "normalizing" the sexual abuse of women and children.
The gathering of female Muslim clerics backed up their fatwa against the practice of child marriage by pointing out that most young girls who are married before 18 do not continue on in their education. Apparently, half of these unions also result in divorce.
Since Indonesia has the highest rate of child brides in the world, this fatwa from the gathering of female Muslim clerics could not have come from a more important place. Hopefully, their unequivocal message will help persuade government officials to outlaw altogether any marriages involving a girl under the age of 18.