Too young to wed

Chicago’s Field Museum has a great exhibit, Women of Vision, with pictures by the women photographers of National Geographic. It’s possible that I would have to raise my photography game to match their efforts.

These two heartbreaking pictures by Stephanie Sinclair show girls forced into marriage.

We sometimes hear the argument: Who are you outsiders to criticize someone else’s culture? One answer can be seen in the picture below. The women most intimately affected often object.

The crying bride in the picture, Surita Shreshta Balami, is only sixteen. She is howling in protest at what she is being made to do.

The picture below of two married couples speaks for itself.

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Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

6 thoughts on “Too young to wed”

  1. Political correctness is complicated, and often gets reduced to an easy caricature (which ironically is used as a blunt weapon to shut down debate). But one of its key elements is the notion that we all have cultural baggage and biases, that we each have relative social privileges based on our gender, sexual, racial, income, education, etc. histories, and that we should be cognizant of this. The whole movement rose out of a long, slow cultural transformation – reaching its pinnacle in the civil rights movement – in which social inequality and prejudice was understood to be a function of cultural assumptions borne out of ignorance and exploitation (women not having the vote gave men more power, blacks and minorities having to do menial labor gave white more power, and thus the relationship was exploitative).

    It's obviously much more complex, and I feel like I am merely stating the obvious here, but to the degree that political correctness is lamented, I feel there is an obvious historical ignorance at work. Ironically, those who despise political correctness are often the same people who feel that these imbalanced power relationships no longer exist and so the need for critical self-awareness is unnecessary, however the act of being self-critical is the very thing which prevents these cultural inequalities and exploitative relationships from developing in the first place! The basic truth of historical discrimination is how it was so often less about a top-down explicit, rational, logical oppression, but rather an unconscious, bottom-up acceptance of traditional assumptions and views that went unexamined, and to the extent that they were, they were rationalized and justified post-hoc.

    Obviously, self-awareness can be taken to extremes, and become neurotic. It can also be used as an unfair, ad-hominem, bludgeon to scold those whose opinions you disagree with. But the basic idea that we should A)Acknowledge our historical tendency of prejudice, B) Acknowledge that it could be a factor in our thinking at any time presently, and C) Spend a little time thinking before we speak, I think is perfectly reasonable.

    That said, specific matters of cultural analysis are complex. At issue here – what kinds of issues might come up in the discussion of child-brides in an outsider culture, I personally am rather unfamiliar with the terrain of cultural criticism on both sides of the moral/cultural relativity fence. But I do know there are good arguments on both sides. On the one hand, a crying young girl being forced to marry (and assumedly be raped by her groom), is despicable. On the other, there is a long history of (white) Westerners' outrage at such practices being amplified and intensified not merely by the act itself but by it as a rationalization of self-superiority through a dehumanization of the other. An example of this closer to home might be the outrage at black wayward youths and characterization of them as "thugs" – a word that too easily erases the obvious social conditions from which the behavior arises).

  2. Well, to be honest, I can't tell much from these photos. Nothing I would swear to, anyhow.

    That said, I just had a big drag-out with a friend over facemasks and how I think they should be illegal. And how I think the French have a right to defend their culture (though they should have done it in advance of allowing in lots of immigrants).

    There are real values at issue and I don't even think it's a question of "political correctness," which usually just means not calling someone a name they don't like anymore. It is okay to disagree and stand up for women's humanity.

  3. I don't think the strong objection is to marriage at sixteen. It's problematic and risky, but Juliet knows her own mind. The girl in the photo is old enough to decide – and she does not want to. It's the coercion, at any age.

    IIRC child marriages at a much younger age were common in imperial China. They were often sexual disasters when the couple reached maturity later, because the mechanism that inhibits sibling incest kicked in.

  4. I would think any age at all is too young to be wed involuntarily. Shouldn't that be the issue here? 16 is hardly so young as to be utterly inadmissible for a voluntary marriage.

  5. I encourage people to follow the links and spend a few minutes reading up on these stories. The girl in pink doesn't need us to figure out what she thinks from looking at her picture: she was given an opportunity to speak for herself and took it: "Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him." She was married at age 6.

    Regardless of what may well be a praiseworthy desire to avoid criticizing others' cultural practices, we do know a few things about how the human body works: girls who become pregnant too young are at substantial risk for significant and permanent physical damage. That's just a fact. Another fact is that below a certain level of development, humans do not have the ability to give meaningful consent to sex.

    Also, exactly what Brett said.

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