A rebuttal to a news wire article 12/13/2004
On Monday Dec 13, 2004 I saw a news article on yahoo.com, originally published by the Chicago Tribune, regarding the marriage of young girls. The article dealt mostly with the middle east, but India was also mentioned. The article, obviously, was very much opposed to the idea of girls being married young. It was written by an American woman. I decided to write a rebuttal to her article and I am publishing it on my web site. I do not expect the Chicago Tribune to publish it (because it is somewhat long, and sent days after the original was published), what to speak of the entire syndication (I found the article on Yahoo /Reuters - internet news wire).
This is a rebuttal to Christine Spolar's article entitled:
I base my views on the teachings of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, the Founder/Acharya (teacher) of ISKCON (the Hare Krsna Movement) (we lovingly call him Srila Prabhupad and for brevity I will use that title in referring to him in the remainder of this article). His teachings are based upon the Vedic scriptures, and specifically for this topic, on the Vedic work known as the Manu Samhita. Srila Prabhupad taught us that it is imperative that girls be married no later than 16 years of age. And that it is best if they can be married even before reaching puberty. Several things to note in this connection are: 1) the girls are not to live with husband until after first menstruation. And 2) even though he taught his members this, the practice is not at all widely practiced or even accepted by the vast majority of his current followers. (There are a variety of reasons. Some are not comfortable with the concept and simply ignore to accept it, some are not familiar with those aspects of his teachings, and others may be supportive, but have not found it practical to follow while living in greater societies that prohibit or look down upon such things). But, the fact remains that our spiritual teacher did teach us that this is proper and religious and he instructed that it should be accepted and followed. I have studied this topic for many years and have some understanding of it and support the view of our scripture and that of my spiritual teacher, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad.
Yes, it is taught that a girl should be married no later than 16 years of age. Manu Samhita [9.90] states no later than 3 years after the girl's first menstruation. The Vedic scripture treats this as a very serious religious isue, as protection of the women is the highest social priority and goal of religion. The ultimate goal of religion is to steer society toward re-establishing our eternal loving relationship with the Supreme Godhead. The immediate social goal of religion is to make society and family life peaceful so as to provide the best environment where society can peacefully concentrate on the ultimate goal of knowing and loving God. It is clearly taught that society can become peaceful only when the women class are properly and religiously protected.
Protection means that their chastity is well protected.
Well protected, pure in heart, chaste girls are the future mothers of society. Chaste girls with pure hearts are able to give birth to saintly children who will uplift human society. Thus, protection of the women is considered the golden key for establishing and maintaining a peaceful society and family in this world. When society is peaceful then society can reawaken our loving personal relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Thus, protection of the women among a society of people who understand and uphold such ideal religious views, is paramount to establishing a God loving and peaceful family, community/society, country and world.
Our scriptures and great teachers in our religious line have taught very specifically how this protection of the women must be done. Srila Prabhupad has taught that the husband should be no less then 5 years older then the girl. 8-10 years older is best. There is no maximum age difference. Marriage for daughter must be arranged by the father. The father knows the personality of the daughter best and the loving father is most concerned for her lifelong welfare. There must be no dating allowed. No free social mixing of unwed boys and girls. The religious husband of the daughter must be the first man (outside of family relations) that a religious wife is to ever know. Now, I admit, these things fly in the face of our modern culture here in America. But, the scripture and our teachers do not just throw out a list of rules and regulations whimsically, but, Srila Prabhupad taught us that there is a very exacting science behind these religious social rules. He taught us why it is vital to understand and accept these things, and what the consequences are of following or not following.
In Manu Samhita [9.94] it states that the ideal ages for marriage is 30 for the husband to a girl who pleases him of 12 years of age. This is quit a difference to what is accepted as legal and moral, or religious by the vast majority in today's Western world. However, Srila Prabhupad taught that there are very scientific reasons for getting the girls married by this age. And why the man must be of older age.
For an added perspective on Srila Prabhupad's stand on this issue, it should be noted that he himself married at the age of 22 to a girl who was 11 years of age. They did not live together as husband and wife until his wife had her first menstruation. At that time, another ceremony is held and the girl goes to the husband's family's home to live with her husband. His wife gave birth to their first child at age 13. Another factor is, unlike in our American culture, the young man typically stays in his father's house for sometime, until he is more able to head out on his own, or possibly he will inherit his father's house and in this case he will never leave his father's house, as would be the case with the oldest son. When the girl comes to live with her husband, it is in the house of the husband's family. Her mother-in-law, sister-in-laws, will all be living together and she will have all the support and care given by her new family that she enjoyed in her own father's house. Moreover the girl's family will work closely with the husband's family to assure that their daughter will be properly cared for and properly treated in her new home.
[It also must be noted that often what is currently practiced in the poorer areas of India regarding this and many other social practices is not what is taught by the Vedic scripture. You cannot simply look at what is practiced or accepted currently in some place in India and assume that those practices are at all representative of the actual Vedic principals. Over the years the ideal Vedic culture has become neglected and degraded in different ways. We must be careful to look to the scripture for the actual position and not modern India.]
As explained earlier, the reason scripture instructs us to marry the daughter at young age is for the 'protection' of the women. In Bhagavad Gita, the most popular teachings of Lord Sri Krsna, it is written:
The most precious aspect to be protected is the woman's chastity. Chastity is a term that does not just mean virginity at time of marriage. But, chastity embraces the demeanor or character of the person. A chaste unwed girl is one who has never had any association with any other man in the way of lover or even boyfriend. Also, it means that she has not even associated with men outside of normal religious family relations. And, a chaste wife is one who adheres to this same strict sense of chaste behavior in married life as well. Not associating in any familiar way with any other man, only her husband.
Vedic scriptures give much emphasis to the chastity of the women. A woman's true beauty is her chastity or shyness. Chastity is praised and glorified and chaste women are very much respected and honored. A chaste woman is considered worshippable by the highest class of men. Chastity is considered the greatest virtue. A chaste unwed girl is considered the most precious and valuable asset of society.
Srila Prabhupad also taught the Vedic formula for begetting saintly children. Children who will have all good and saintly qualities and who will take to religious principles, uphold them and live strongly by them. How do you beget such strong moral and saintly religiously inclined children? The formula is that the chastity of the girl (the mother of the children) must be protected very strictly by the girl's father during her youth. The girl must never have had any familiar association with any other man before or during her married life. The only man she is to really know and associate with intimately, other then normal healthy relations with family members, is with her religiously married husband. This means a very high degree of chastity is required. When there is combination of a man trained in religious responsibilities with a girl who has been kept strictly chaste, the result is that the children of such a couple will be inclined to saintly - religious life. God arranges that souls of saintly disposition will be sent to take birth from the wombs of such duly and religiously protected chaste women.
Religion is both a science and a system of faith based on the acceptance of that science. I have studied this science and I have invested my full faith in this science.
Although it is often propagated that America ensures "Freedom of Religion", many social laws are suppressive of those who adhere to the true religious teachings of the Vedas and other religious scriptures and beliefs as well. Some things may not be illegal now, but, with growing sentiment turned against marrying girls at young age, for instance, there could easily be laws passed making it illegal for a father to arrange the marriage of his daughter. Many people in the West look down upon this practice, seeing it as suppressive toward women. What is the real issue here is religious freedom. Religion does not, by far, simply mean having faith that God exists. Religion also means to live in accordance with the laws God has given us. For us, as followers of the Vedic scripture, it is a religious law that a father must arrange for the marriage of his daughter before she reaches the age of 16 years old (or no later than 3 years after the girl's first menstruation.). It is described as Kanya Daya, and daya-bak. meaning that it is an absolute religious law or duty. It is stated that a man can go to a judge and be excused from many other laws, or even from debts. But, our scripture states that the religious duty of the father to marry his daughter in her youth is inexcusable. It is a religious obligation that has no forgiveness and the father cannot be relieved of this religious duty. And, by our religious scriptural law, it is fully allowed, encouraged even, that a girl can be married before she reaches puberty (as long as she does not reside with the husband until she reaches puberty).
What is really at issue is religious freedom verses what has been called human-rights. Very often so-called human-rights activists push for social laws, such as setting a minimum age for girls to marry, that go in total opposition to religious scriptural law. When this occurs, the modern view is that 'progress' has been made. Or that society has 'evolved' - supposedly to a higher more benevolent and intellectual level. The idea is that the new modern law is somehow more moral then God’s religious laws. When religious scriptural laws conflict with modern social laws, it is the religious scriptural laws that are today rejected and their practice made illegal and punishable by the state.
An obvious example of this is polygamy.
The Manu Samhita deals with the social religious laws regarding marriage. Throughout the text all such laws are also given as they apply to marriages in which the man has more than one wife. In our Vedic religious laws, polygamy is fully allowable. It is even encouraged as a means for the father to find the most proven and qualified man as husband for his daughter. The reason polygamy is allowed is for the same reason girls are married at young age. To assure that their purity and chastity is protected. Which will thereby assure a peaceful society and a saintly population.
King David and King Solomon of the Jewish faith married numerous wives each. Prophet Mohammed of the Islamic faith also married more than one wife, and taught that the male adherents of the Muslim faith can religiously have up to 4 wives at any one time. That is the religious law of the Quran. Lord Jesus never spoke on this subject. He never condemned the marriages of King David or Solomon and never spoke out against men taking more than one wife. Yet, the practice was prevalent in his life time. We can only conclude that Jesus did not oppose it.
In Hinduism, Lord Krishna gave His protection to 16,108 wives. There is a wonderful description in the Srimad Bhagavatam explaining how and why He did this. Obviously, He allowed and personally favored polygamy. He also arranged the marriage of His dear sister, Subhadra, as the second wife of the great warrior Arjun, who eventually accepted a number of other wives. And, more recently in our Vaishnav line of Hinduism, 500 years ago Lord Nityananda, a great teacher of our line, married 2 wives.
Polygamy is not forbidden in these leading religious scriptures, and has long been practiced by prominent leaders of the world's leading religions. Yet, today governments have made these religious forms of marriage illegal. Man’s civil laws vs the religious laws ordained by God Himself. In the land that glorifies itself as assuring Freedom of Religion, this essential religious form of marriage is condemned and prohibited by civil (Federal) law.
That is why I personally see these issues as being no less than direct attacks on religious freedom. Under the name of human-rights, religious freedoms and rights are stripped away.
Think about this:
If Mohammed were to live in America today with 4 wives, he could be arrested and sent to prison. The court could order Him that when released He must no longer associate with any of his religious wives (except maybe the one he married first, but, then what if he were to have married all four at the same time?). And all of his children could be taken away by the State and put into foster homes until other families adopt them. Also the State would not allow them to be adopted by followers of Mohammed who also supported the idea of polygamy. The court would also likely order Mohammed to cease and desist from preaching to His followers that they too can marry up to 4 wives. And, of course, it would be illegal for Him, or anyone that He were to ordain, to perform a polygamous marriage or to be involved in making religious arrangements for someone else to marry more than one wife. And, if Mohammed had a young daughter, say 12, and he were to give her as wife to a man, say 30 years of age who already was married, something completely sanctioned by Mohammed and by the religious laws of Islam, then Mohammed could again be arrested and charged with child abuse or child endangerment, and his son-in-law could be arrested and charged with child molestation. Again, His children would be taken away by the State and He would be prohibited from preaching to others that they should engage in such illegal acts against the State law.
This may sound totally off-the-wall to someone who is not aware of these religious laws. However, it is extremely disturbing to those who have are faithful to their religious scriptures and who want to abide by the social laws of their religion.
Personally I find it disturbing to have been born in America and grew up here believing that America protects one's right to Freedom of Religion – and yet to find by my studies that many modern civil or social laws have precedence over the scriptural laws of one’s religion. I found it disheartening to learn that in America, under our current laws, the founding prophet of one of the world's leading religions would today be no less then a felon outlaw. He would be prohibited, by law, from living with his 4 religiously married wives.
Civil (government) laws in the land we proudly hail as protecting freedom of one’s right to practice his or her religion, rather than protecting Mohammed’s religious freedom, our laws prohibit some of the most essential social religious laws regarding marriage and protection of the women. Our laws turn the great religious leaders of some of the world's greatest religions into common felon criminals. Our nation’s laws would prohibit Prophet Mohammed from propagating His religious teachings and his teaching that his male followers are allowed to marry up to 4 wives each. Then, where is the so-called Freedom of Religion in our nation? What Freedom? I am only free as long as I adhere to the states laws that prohibit forms of marriage that are considered essential to societies religious and moral wellbeing. What Freedom of religion is that?
The same with King David and King Solomon, who were both leading prophets and proponents of the Jewish faith. Their religious marriages would also be deemed illegal and they could also be imprisoned for practicing their religiously allowed forms of religious marriage. If any of these religious leaders were to preach and promote their religious laws in America, they could be arrested for undermining the state or Federal laws. They could be arrested for ordaining, encouraging or practicing state defined ‘illegal’ forms of marriage. And, the State could legally break their religious marriages. The state could, and would, break up the families of the great teachers of the world’s greatest religions. And thereby the American government’s laws would break the religious vows of King David, King Solomon and Mohammed.
Yes, in America, our government would imprison Prophet Mohammed, King David and King Solomon, and yet we pat ourselves on the backs, praising ourselves for allowing “Religious Freedom” in our land. What sort of religious freedom is this where the founders of the world's greatest religions would be imprisoned and their religious vows, marriages and families broken apart by our civil laws?
It is time for the true religious people to wake up.
And the same with Lord Krishna of Hindu faith and His family and the millions of followers of these religious figureheads. All of them are considered felon outlaws by the current laws in America. In this way, modern social laws are at strong odds with the religious teachings of the world's greatest religious leaders. Especially in regards to marriage and the fundamental religious principle of protecting the religious purity and chastity of womanhood and motherhood and the women of society. And, by definition within our scripture, these forms of marriage are essential to the religious peace and advancement of the society. These are core religious principles.
Lord Krishna gave his young sister to another man, somewhat older man, as that man’s second wife. Imagine, today, if a religious leader were to make the marriage arrangements of his 13 year old sister, and gives her in marriage to a man who is 30 and already religiously married? The State would go after that religious leader and arrest him. The State would try and charge Lord Krishna with abuse of a minor, with child endangerment, etc. And, if the great warrior Arjun were to have consummated his marriage to Krishna’s 13 year old sister, the state would try and arrest Arjun and charge him with child molestation.
I realize that I may appear to stand alone in my views, but I am not wrong. I stand on the principle of true religion. The basis in our scripture for allowing and even encouraging polygamy and child marriages is solely to protect the religious chastity of the women. These are religious forms of marriage that our scripture and many of the great religious leaders of the great religions have taught are required in order to protect the chastity of the women and help establish and protect a religiously adherent society, and today such religious forms of marriage are made illegal and suppressed by modern laws.
The idea of fathers arranging the marriages of their young daughters in order to protect their religious chastity is now, also, being challenged as modern social laws are implemented to make this religious practice also illegal.
The modern idea is that women are suppressed by allowing polygamy or child marriage, but I say that the social laws prohibiting these religious forms of marriage are by far the much more severely suppressive in the long-run. They are not only suppressing women from being properly and religiously protected, they are suppressing the entire society from the benefits of living in a peaceful and religiously centered environment.
At some point, intelligent men and women will come to understand this, and the tide will turn in favor of re-establishing genuine religiously centered social laws, rather then artificial and faulty man-made social laws.
But, lets get back to the article in which I am writing about. The author, Christine Spolar, makes some compelling arguments why marriage for young girls is, in her view, a bad thing.
1) When girls are married so young, generally the girl has no real choice. First, she is not the one choosing whether to marry or not, and secondly, she is not even choosing her own husband. Her father is making both choices for her.
2) Studies have shown that girls who give birth at young age have more health issues during pregnancy, have higher death rates at childbirth, the babies have more health issues, are weaker and smaller in size, etc.
My spiritual teacher, Srila Prabhupad, cited just the opposite statistics. No, he did not conduct a scientific study, but the view he gave would warrant a more open study to see if it is found to be true. What he told us, based on his own experience in India, is that the girls who married young and had children in their early teen years, he noted that they lived very long and healthy lives. In his view, it was more strenuous on women to begin child bearing at older ages. Granted, his was not a scientific study, however, he did have a lot of first-hand experience of such marriages (child brides). This was the wide-spread (virtually unanimous) system of marriage during his child and young adult life, and it enjoyed a history going back to the earliest of recorded times in India. Thus, he was able to draw on a very long-time tested and very wide-spread tradition among a large population as well as his own life's experiences.
But, it has to be noted that the examples he was knowledgeable of were where the girls came from healthy living conditions, as opposed to a majority of the girls in the studies cited in the article who came from impoverished, unsanitary and unhealthy living conditions. Srila Prabhupad was born in 1896, in Calcutta, India. He was a young man in the 1920's in India, growing up in the State of Bengal, where it was the accepted standard for girls to be married very young. The area of Calcutta where his family resided was, at that time sanitary, clean and quite well off. (Today Calcutta is not at all the glory it once was under the British rule, who built Calcutta). His own sisters were married very young, one at 9, another at 12.
And the women in the society supported the marriage of the girls at young age as well. He told how when his sister turned 12 and was not yet married, his mother threatened her husband, "If you do not get our daughter married soon, I will throw myself in the Ganges [river] and drown myself". Tis issue is taken very seriously by those who understand it’s religious value.
All around him, his extended family members, mother, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, friends, neighbors, this was the accepted standard. It was not the exception. This was the accepted standard. If a girl was not married by age of 17, she was considered an old-maid. No educated man would accept her. She would have a hard time finding even a 50 year old man who had 10 wives willing to accept her. She would be considered too old for marriage. This is the vast difference between the culture he grew up in and what we accept as right or wrong, or normal and acceptable. His assessment on the health of the women who married and gave birth as young teens is based on the reality that he lived in. It was the normal standard in his day among the clean and sanitary well educated populace as well as rural.
The women interviewed by Ms Spolar's article were from extremely impoverished areas where not just the women, but the men and children, everyone is over worked, spending their whole lives working hard just to marginally feed and cloth themselves and where they live in unhealthy conditions.
Thus, I do not accept the validity of the studies as quoted by the article as proof that the young age of the marriage of these girls is what causes their high death rate at birth, ill health and ill health of the babies born.
Then, what about other negative issues that are also brought out? What about the girls having to work hard in the fields, plus take care of domestic duties, such as cooking, cleaning, etc., and managing all this while but a young pregnant teenager, lactating with small infants babies to take care of? Again, this is directly attributable most entirely to the poor economic conditions, not to the age of the girl at marriage. Yes, I do agree that it 'may' be more demanding on a young girl. On the other hand, it may prove to be that the young teenager is more able to handle this then a women 24 being put into the same situation. It is not the young age of the girl that is a major factor, it is the deplorable living and economic conditions the people are living it that is the cause of the negative problems. Unless you put an equal number of 24-30 year old women into the same situations, who had never had babies until that age, and you test how they fare, you cannot say it is scientific evidence that the age of these girls is the cause of their health issues. Unless scientifically proven wrong, my logical theory is that the economic environment is key to the negative social and health issues.
Simply going in there and disrupting the social and religious traditions is not the solution. That will simply cause more social disruption. What the men of those areas need is help economically, not that social workers come in and disrupt their religious belief’s and values and try and change their culture and views toward their religion. That is, again, nothing less then forced religion under the banner of so-called human-rights.
What about incidents of mistreatment, of men, husbands, who basically take advantage of the their young wife? My issue with this is that, I have seen a number of times when a news reporter or social worker has a strong desire to make a social change, where they have a strong personal dislike for some social situation they often jump on any and every isolated event or circumstance that gives their position support and try to blow that isolated incident as being the norm for 'those type of people'. I have seen this occur many times. There are 1,000's of times more wonderful success stories of girls marrying young and having children in early teens, but you do not hear of them. What reaches the headlines is the bad and negative things. Actually, every older lady in India today, most all of them were married as young teens. My wife is from Indian family. My mother-in-law was married and had her first child at 13. She is now in her 70's, although she does suffer from mild diabetes (I say it is due to bad diet), she is otherwise in good health, traveling the world in her older age, from South Africa to America and Europe and this year will mark her second trip to India in the past 5 years. And she not only had her first child at 13, she had 10 children in total. (That means she was pregnant for a total of 9 years out of her life). Her life is an unpublished success story. Her success? Her chastity was kept well protected by her father in her youth, and she remained a very chaste wife all her life, even when her husband died leaving her with 10 children in her older 30's to raise, she has remained a chaste wife, and all her children are religious and live upstanding lives. There was never divorce in her family. And no infidelity. This is an example of a successful marriage and family with the girl being married in her young teen years. And this is typical of millions of older women living today in India who were married and had children, lots of them, in their young age. Thus, I flatly reject the idea that child brides are more susceptible to ill health or even abuse. It is false or misleading propaganda only.
Actually this whole issue is precisely one which comes down to the choice of religious freedom, or religious suppression. The modern idea is that woman, as a class, are suppressed under a system that allows child brides, arranged marriages and polygamy. While the religious view is that religious moral principles are suppressed by not allowing these socio-religious cultural forms of marriage and social relationships.
It is also a topic that cannot be dealt with to any final degree with one short article (even though this has become longer than intended). But, one of the main sub-issues is that of school. If girls are married off and become wives and mothers at young age, what about their school? What is the purpose of modern school? To become educated enough to become a productive member of the public workforce.
But, if a girl is to become a life-long full time wife and mother, then all she really needs to learn for her life-long career is how to cook, clean, take care of children and her husband. She only really needs to learn and know domestic duties, which she learns perfectly from her own mother and other women of the family while staying home.
In traditional families like this we are not just speaking of a family consisting of a man, a woman, and their children. No. We are speaking of 'extended' families. There would be the husband, his wife, their children, but also the husband's father, mother, maybe 1 or 2 brothers of the husband, some may be married as well, and maybe the yet unwed sisters of the husband, plus nearby, living next door, may be other close relatives as well. The women as a whole stay at home and engage in the domestic duties. But, not alone. They do so in the larger extended families. In such extended families it is not such a hard burden on the young wife/mother. She has much support, and does not look after the children alone, does not cook or clean alone. Functional and religious families are more communal. They are extended families. (That is a traditional religious family. Something that has been lost due to mass transportation and moving and migrating of so many people over the past 200 + years.)
Cooking, cleaning, taking care of babies and pleasing a husband somehow sounds most distasteful to many women of the modern West. Yet, in reality, this is what married family life is really all about for women. Sorry, but that is the natural reality. And, the truly successful women are the women who perform these natural duties of womanhood nicely. To become a good wife and mother is the traditional duty of women in a religious family based society. Since that is her religious destiny or duty in human life, all those domestic things she will easily learn from her mother and other women of the extended family. There is no need for such a girl to be sent off to school to learn business management, or electrical engineering, or how to do heavy road work, or how to build houses, etc. That would be a total waste of her youth if she were never to use them.
The other factor regarding public schools is that chastity for the girls is not taught, it is not encouraged or at least it is not facilitated. And, rather, her chastity is completely left unprotected and vulnerable to ruination. Free intermixing of young boys and girls is the standard. Dating is expected, and in the absence of arranged marriages, is the only means that a girl can find a husband. Yet, dating can easily put a young girl at a disadvantage. Boys can seduce or coerce a girl into engaging in promiscuous behavior, at first against her better judgment and most always against the desire and order of her parents, especially her father. And, modern colleges scenes and environments are so geared to irreligious sexual relations it is virtually impossible for a girl to remain virgin, what to speak of religiously chaste, in such an environment.
And, what is the purpose for sending girls to school? To educate them so that they can have a good career within the industrial complex public workforce. There is no other purpose. Of course, the other argument is that even if a girl and her family has as her goal to take up the career of being a life-long housewife and mother, still, what would happen if her husband leaves her or he dies early? So, they argue all girls should complete at least high school, and should go on to get some college degree. So, lets follow this lifestyle.
A girl is forbidden to marry, well, at least legally on her own she cannot if her parents do not allow, or in many countries, the law does not allow, before she is 18. So, during high school years she cannot marry. Yet, dating and free mixing with boys, that is acceptable. So, she mixes with young boys who simply want to 'cut their wild oats', so to speak. They want to explore, they want to conquer and often they simply want to exploit the charms of a young girl for their own immediate sensual satisfaction with no inkling of long-term responsibility. Often young girls are seduced into promiscuous lifestyle. Society throws up it's arms and says, you can't stop it, you can't go against nature. Especially when dating is allowed. So, society now teaches in the schools, practice 'safe' sex. Use condoms to keep from contracting sexually transmitted disease, and use contraceptive birth control pills for the girls so even if the condom is missed, they won't get pregnant. Of course, there is some idea of abstinence still taught in some homes, and for those who attend religious functions. But, this is not really taught by the schools, if at all, only to a minor extent. The result is, society no longer holds chastity among it's women as being of any real value. Chastity is not taught as a virtue in public schools, nor is it fully understood or valued even by many religious people. Girls are not taught not to mix freely with boys, rather, dating and free mixing is openly allowed and in many cases encouraged. In mass, today, the girls coming out of the public schools have no idea what chaste behavior is, or what it's worth or value is to them or to the society.
Basically, chastity is the tenant and teachings of religiosity. What one religious faith may consider unchaste, another may consider acceptable (for instance, divorce and remarriage, or dating and free association of the sexes). Thus, State regulated public school programs completely avoid the religious issue of chastity. For the past several generations a vast number of people have turned away from religion, and thus, there is a wide swath of children who attend public schools who have no affiliation with any religion and thus have no basis of moral or chaste behavior other than what is mandated by the State. Since the State does not mandate any standard regarding chastity, for those children there is no standard for them other then what can be figured out from the confusing State laws. I say confusing because on one hand, a girl 12 or so is often taught that IF she engages in sex, she must have the boy use condoms, and IF she does this, she should use oral contraceptives. And the school itself then supplies the girl with these contraceptives and teaches her how to use them. But, then, if she is caught engaged in sex, the same State can come down and punish the same kids. Just recently a 15 year old girl was discovered giving oral sex to a 17 year old boy in class at their public school. Even though the school taught them how to have safe sex, the same school had the two arrested and charged with felon crimes. The mother's girls said something to the effect she had no idea her daughter was doing things like that. She said, I knew she had boyfriends and liked to be around boys, but I had no idea she was so promiscuous. The kids are taught a double standard.
But, the point is, sending girls into the modern school system is not acceptable to parents who want to raise their children with higher religious values. Parents who understand the religious and social value of chastity for it's women class do not want their children associating in such an irreligious environment. It has become irreligious and degraded because God has been taken out of the educative system. Since many kids have no other moral or ethical grounding, they have no other values for chaste behavior, and thus, public schools promote irreligiousness.
I can hear the complaints. This is sexist. I am only speaking of the chastity of the women, as if the fidelity of the men does not matter. Well, first we are speaking of Child Brides, the topic is focused on girls getting married in youth. The focus of the article is on women, not men. Secondly, men and women are different. You may call it being sexist. I call it simply coming to terms with reality and not burying one's head in the sand and ignoring the blatant and simple fact of life.
As I said, there are basically 2 general views. One view says that it is wrong for people to differentiate between the sexes in social roles or duties. This view strives for (artificial) equality which they call human-rights. And the other view which recognizes the differences in the sexes and strives for peace in society by organizing society according to the differences.
This really comes down to the issue of those who are religious and those who are not. Those who are religious recognize that each gender has very different social roles and duties to enact. Different cultures make for different flavors of this, but I call this view the fundamental religious view. I call it a religious view because most who uphold this view do so from the religious perspective that God has created the two genders and he thus created different roles or duties that each gender must follow.
This can be seen from a study of the animal world. Not all species follow the same gender rules and standards, but we find that each species does follow their own specific gender roles. Male lions and female lions each have their own social roles and duties, same with different species of monkeys, birds, etc. In some bird species the male bird makes a nest to attract the female. The more neat his nest, the more chance he has of winning a mate. Some bird species, the male bird brings back the food and feeds the young, in other species this becomes the duty of the female. The religious perspective sees that this is by nature and is of Divine design. Even the naturalist will see that it is mother nature's way. It is simply the law of nature. The male gender of a certain species will perform social duties A, B and C and the female will perform social duties X, Y and Z. Nature has set those duties by gender.
I recall hearing about some elephants in Africa. I can't recall all the details, but, some conservationists wanted to transplant a herd to another area. They had studied herds of elephants for a long time and thought that the adult male elephant did not really contribute much to the social life of the herd other then to impregnate the females. The adult female, however, was needed to care for the very small elephants. So, the conservationists transported only the adult females and the children and young adults. They were thinking that the young male and female elephants would mate and the herd would continue on as normal. But, instead, a very disturbing thing occurred. The young male elephants became totally unruly. First they started sporting around. Then they became more and more wild and violent. Rather then mating with the young females, some of the young males charged them, fought them, and even killed them in sport. The young males quickly got way out of control. And the adult females were not able to stop them. Rather, the young males turned on the adult females as well. The entire social system of the herd was completely disturbed and upset. The young male elephants turned into nothing less then unruly juvenile delinquents and violent bullies. The conservationists were at first puzzled. They had never seen this type of behavior before. It was so 'un-elephant' like. The only difference was the lack of the adult males. So, they decided to send some adult males to see what might happen. The adult males immediately went to work going after the young males and forcing them back into line. They, basically, for lack of a better word, 'civilized' the young males. Soon, the young males were again acting normal and the herd's social life resumed.
Thus, the adult males, although at first seeming to be of no importance to the social order, other then procreation, were discovered to be 100% essential to the peace and proper functioning of the herd and elephant's social system. The adult females fed and taught the youth how to forage, the adult males set and enforced the social laws of the elephant community. Each gender has their own unique and specific social duty. This can be seen all through out the animal kingdom.
Aside from it being nature's design that the genders have their own naturally ordained social role and duty, it should also be noted that when that natural duty of one gender was artificially changed, the whole social life of the herd was totally upset and disturbed.
In 1975 A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad was speaking with a female TV news reporter and she asked him if it was true that in our temples that he defined separate roles and duties for men and women? Srila Prabhupad readily admitted, yes. And explained that women have their unique duty, men have theirs. The reporter replied that in America we were trying to make give women equal-rights with men. Srila Prabhupad replied, "I am not trying". So, the reporter said that many women in America would not agree with this idea, they would reject the idea. So, she asked Srila Prabhupad what would be the result when the women refuse to accept that they have different roles and social duties then men. Srila Prabhupad repeated three times, there will be complete social disruption. The entire social and family life will be disrupted, society will never be peaceful. Later Srila Prabhupad was again explaining how divorce, broken families, so much crime and social disruption all stems from the women not submitting to their natural social duties and roles in society. So, the female reporter asked, "Then if women were to accept this...?". Srila Prabhupad, "Then all of society’s problems, all disruption, will be solved". Society will actually become peaceful. And, we can learn from the animal kingdom. Take away the male elephant's social duty and try to make the female do the work and duty of the male, all social disruption in their community followed.
Actually, there is a major difference between the animal kingdom and the human race. According to the Vedas, animals are compelled to act under the stringent laws of material nature. The male elephant performs it's social functions and duties under the force of material nature. The female likewise does it's duties as compelled to do so by the laws of nature. Yet, humans are able to choose and decide on their own. Humans can choose to abide by the laws of nature, the laws of God, or they can choose to defy the law of nature. Animals lack this ability to defy nature. But, when humans defy God's and/or nature's laws, they will suffer the consequence. Disturbances are created and repercussions will result and the person will have to suffer the consequences. But, when humans abide by the laws of nature, then the result is the whole of society becomes more peaceful and in harmony with nature and God.
The human-rights party holds the view that men and women, despite some obvious physical differences, and minor psychological differences (if even those are to be given any real consideration), are both actually equal in all other respects and must be given equal opportunity to perform any social role and take on any social duty that the individual wants, regardless of gender. They say that it is fundamentally wrong for society to expect one gender to have different duties, different roles, then the other gender. They use labels like sexist or chauvinistic, etc. to demean those who uphold the idea that there are natural and God designed separate and unique duties for each gender of the human society.
This party says that it is suppressive toward women for society to limit them in their social roles and duties. That is, by not allowing them full and equal opportunity in education and the work place and in virtually all other social activities (government, etc) with men. This party works to enact laws and social rules by which the women are not stereotyped and delegated to specific roles just because they are born in a woman's body. This party opposes such things as young marriage for the girl, opposed to fathers arranging the girl's marriage, opposed to any idea that women need 'protection' (any more than men), and thus they throw off as old-fashioned and backwards the idea that woman are to be valued for their 'chastity'. They do not want society to see any value in chastity because it demeans those who are not chaste. They do not want to see chastity valued because they know in order for women to be chaste, the society would again not allow them to engage in the same social roles and duties as men. They work to see that women are given equal education, equal opportunity, at least, for employment and advancement in the industrial complex workplace. Any effort toward limiting women from this idea of social equality is seen as oppressive, regardless, and often on account of, those views being based on religious and scriptural teachings. I refer to this view as the industrialistic or atheistic view.
The religious view is that the two genders were created differently and that each have different social duties and roles to play in human society just as it is created in the animal kingdom. I have already given one argument that this is the natural design that can be found in all other species of life. There is a natural division of duty and roles based on gender. Another fundamental argument is with the physiological differences.
Men do not give birth to babies, women do. Along with having the womb and having to bear pregnancy for 10 lunar months, the woman also has mammary glands, milk producing breasts, which produce the perfect food for a new born developing baby. Thus, if we take this "role" or function of the female body to it's natural extent, soon after marriage or union of a woman with a man, the woman will, if left to the due course of mother nature, fall pregnant. Once pregnant her body 'and' even her emotional state, transform. Her hormones push and pull her in ways that, by nature, force her to concentrate on her diet and desire to have adequate rest, etc. In cultures and times past where families were larger and consisted of extended family members living in close proximity, when a woman, regardless of her age, but, especially a young girl, became pregnant the other women folk of the extended family would render her so much care and attention. After delivery of the child there is an immediate period where the new mother will dedicate her full time with the new born child. And, it is the woman who has been endowed with lactating breasts needed to feed the small infant with the perfectly designed food. The natural program is that a new born baby should subsist on his/her mother's breast milk directly and exclusively for the first 6 months of their life. This is actually recommended and is the most healthy for the new born baby.
The point is, that during this entire period, throughout the term and for at least 6 months after birth, the mother, in a natural setting, would be in a condition where she would not be able to engage in any other work outside her family environment. Of course, in today's society there are many women who will work throughout their entire pregnancy, and who will take out only a very minimum number of days or weeks after birth and go right back to their workplace. However, this is not the best program, either for the women/mothers, nor for the developing child, pre or post natal.
Woman are the ones who must deal with the entire term of pregnancy, the child birth, and they are the ones who have the naturally endowed breasts that produce the perfect food for the new born infant. Thus, the duty of child bearing is theirs alone. None of this is the man's duty. By force of nature, because the bodies are different, there are absolutely and positively different social - family duties based on gender. To deny this is a total lack of intelligence and common sense. It is a complete denial of reality. The duty of women, in regards to children, the fruit of family life and marriage, is that it is the exclusive duty for women to bear the pregnancy term, deliver the baby, and breast feed the small infant. That is mandated by nature, God, and cannot be intelligently denied. And, during these times it is the man's duty to provide fully for the woman. To provide for her comfort and well being, food, clothing, some assistance. The main duty of the man is to provide the means of livelihood for his wife during her time of child bearing and infant rearing years.
This brings us to another aspect of this issue. Industrialized society. What do I mean by this? The industrial revolution has taken a very large toll on the family in our current society. Why have so many women stepped out of the home and into the public workforce? Is it only due to women wanting to work outside and be just like men? No, it is not. Going back 200 years ago, basically women did not work outside the home in European / American homes. In cottage industry type villages around the world, mostly men have performed the labor intensive work. Construction of buildings, road work, digging wells, the plowing of the fields, this has mostly been the work of the men. Women did engage in work with their husbands, or engaged in harvesting work, etc. Shop owners often ran their businesses as mom and pop stores, where the wife would work, as much as possible, along side her husband. But, for the most part, if the man could run the business himself, he did and the wife was the housewife and full time mother of the family.
But, with industrialization, which occurred side-by-side with international banking and financial business transactions, there came a new need in the work force. That of organizing and doing secretarial work in offices. Filing of papers, transcribing dictations and writing correspondence. At the same time public schools were more systematically training the youth. As industrialization increased, there was a growing demand for men to work in the factories, to build and work with the large machinery. Mines had to be dug and worked. Ironworks were needed, steam engines had to be built, rail road irons needed to be cast, trees needed to be cut down, saw mills needed to be run. Male labor was needed for these physically demanding jobs. Women who were for one reason or other 'available' for helping their fathers, or husbands, would help around the office. It was soon found that women did well in organizing and helping, secretarial work. There was demand for such work, as office type work increased along with the banking, financial world and the operation of large corporations that grew along with industrialization. Men gravitated to either filling the hard physical labor of running the factories, mines, etc, or men were the ones who started and ran the corporations, factories, and growing financial institutions that funded the industrial revolution. Up until that time, work outside the home was a man's only world. Women only assisted their husband, if and when needed, and otherwise they were the housewives and mothers of the children. That was needed, otherwise, with the men so busy with work out side the home, the woman was needed to take care of the home, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and watching the small children. Besides, that is where they were for months every time they got pregnant and a new child came. Families of 10 children or more was also normal, so it was an on-going life-long career for the women.
But, as industrialization increased a need arose for more women to help fill the need for secretaries and office type help. Women could also run sewing machines in shirt factories, women could also do many light work type jobs, as men were needed for more heavy and demanding work. What really threw women into the factories even more were the major wars. With war, men were needed as soldiers, as well as to do all the heavy industrial type work. But the soldiers needed uniforms, guns and ammunition. Women were called on to fill those factory jobs as well. After the wars, many women found themselves without husbands, as they were killed in the war, and so out of need the women remained, not out of want or desire, but out of forced need, to remain working in the factories and in the industrialized workplace. Since many women lacked the higher education, they were not able to fill the managerial jobs. Thus, women began staying in school longer, not out of want or desire, but out of need, the need to keep up with the struggle for existence that the industrialization actually made more difficult, not easier.
Thus, women joined the work force and colleges with the growth of industrialization. Not from a burning desire among the women, and not due to frustration with being housewives and mothers. That is what we heard was driving them, but that was really only a minority of loud mouthed complainers. The bulk of women entered the industrialized workplace out of forced necessity, not desire.
And, since women now worked in the factories, they demanded same pay as the men. What has happed over the years is that rather then the pay for women increasing only, the pay for men has come down. That is, previously, just a generation ago, many families in America subsisted on only the man's income. Single wage earning families. It was common. The stay at home housewife/mother, and the bread earning husband/father. But, as women joined the workforce in more and more quantity and demanded equal pay, men now earn proportionately less to where the average man cannot maintain the family by his own wages alone. In the case of my wife. Her father was a bank teller. A position held only by men in his time. And from his wages alone, he supplied enough income to provide an average living for a family of 12 (10 children). Just as a bank teller. Today, that position is mostly filled by women, with a few men. And today the wages are hardly sufficient to provide for even 1 person, what to speak of providing for a family of 12 !!! This is true for most all forms of employment. At one time even a man working as a low skilled factory worker could earn enough income to support himself, his wife and a number of children, while his wife stayed at home. Today, no way.
The infusion of so many women into the work place has had the effect of bringing down the wages for everyone. And, industrialized products have also come with additional costs. Utility bills, car payments, insurance payments, etc. all of which never existed 100 - 120 years ago. Although these industrialized products seem to have made life easier, they have actually taken a large toll. They come with much additional costs. Today, a man and woman both working can barely meet the needs of a family of 4 or 5 (2-3 children). Often now at least 2 cars are needed, plus there is child care costs, etc. Benjamin Franklin wrote that his father was able to maintain a family of 17 as a simple candle maker, running the business from his home/shop. One man, engaged in simple cottage industry work, earned enough to maintain a family of 17. How is life today easier due to industrialization?
When a woman works, who is supposed to take care of the children? Who will raise the children? Without full time mothers, young children do not develop as wholesome. Who will cook, who will do the laundry, who will clean the house? Cooking, there is one. Fast food diets kill so many American’s today. At home, throw a frozen dinner, cooked months ago, into a microwave, you have a whole meal. But, is it really healthy? What happens to the family unit and the wholesome family tradition? This effects society by the increase in troubled children, and increased crime.
It is a simple fact, modern schools - where both boys and girls are mandated to go to school, and where there are an equal number of women in the work place, does not make for a good wholesome family or society. (I recently read that there is currently, in America, more women in the work place then there are men). Divorce rates are the highest ever. Divorce means broken families and is much more worse on the children then on the adults. Divorce = broken families and this results in a great loss and burden upon the entire social fabric as it spawns more crime and more social disruption. The percentage of the population in prison, I read, is also highest ever. Crime rates are high, drug gangs, street violence. Again, the Bhagavad Gita states:
This is the other bad result of society not valuing the chastity of the women. When women, especially unwed girls, are not protected via marriage, other men or young men, boys, may easily take advantage. As such, girls fall pregnant with unwanted children. Abortion is not a civilized solution. It is murder and it comes with unpleasant reactions in the form of punishment at the hand of God and mother nature, Just as scripture gives us the formula how to give birth to saintly children, by strictly protecting the chastity of the girls, assuring their chastity by getting the girl married young; the scripture also tells us that children born of unchaste behavior are more prone toward crime and irreligious lifestyle. Thus, society and family life becomes hellish. This is the reality for an increasing segment of our modern population.
Protection of the chastity of the women is the paramount social purpose for religion. Men who have real intelligence will understand. They will want to protect their daughters. That is natural for men. They naturally want to protect the chastity of their daughters. That is natural. Vedic scriptures teach that the best protection a father can give his daughter is to get her religiously married to a well trained and responsible man while the girl is yet chaste and unspoiled, no later than 16 years of age. But, that means, also, the man marrying her must be able to provide for the family of his own work. That may mean the family has to get by with less. Cut down on the products of industrialization. Getting by with a smaller home, more modest furnishings, don't take costly trips, etc. The goal is to have a wholesome and warm family environment, with love for God as the goal and center of life. To achieve this, men of fine intelligence will see the need for protecting the chastity of the women, thus they will see the need for arranging the marriage of their precious daughter while she is still pure and chaste. That is religious life. That is the true moral way of life.
It stands at odds with Christine Spolar's vision, it is not a very popular view, mostly because it is a view few have been exposed to. Thus, it is a view that deserves to be heard.
All of these things revolve around the religious view that women are to be protected. Their chastity is to be protected. This is what drives the support for getting the daughter married in her youth. And for the acceptance of different roles and duties for the men and the women. While modern society disdains these religious based views in favor of artificial so-called equal duties and roles, or equal opportunities, geared toward the industrialized workplace, and not wholesome family life. We have heard from the human-rights perspective for our whole generation. It is time for the religious views to be heard as well. Yes, let there be freedom of choice, and true freedom of religion. But, let everyone hear both sides properly first, then decide.
I could write much more, but this is already so long. I do write on this topic much and have my own website at www.16108.com.
The following is the article to which I am referring to and making a rebuttal of:
Delaying marriage gets passing grade
Mon Dec 13, 9:40 AM ET Top Stories - Chicago Tribune
By Christine Spolar Tribune foreign correspondent
The girls in this village near the languid waters of the Nile were always told they could do no better than to marry young, as early as 11, no later than 16.
Shy, dark-eyed Um Kalthoum Hassan was rarely allowed to step beyond the threshold of her home. Nora Abdullah, a teenager with rough hands and broad shoulders, was sent to the cotton fields as her brothers went to school. Nasra Jamal begged off her first marriage proposal at age 13, but she feared it was only a matter of time before she became a bride.
British officials have been forced to deal with the problem on two fronts. Girls are being spirited out of Britain as underage brides, but, increasingly, illegal weddings are also taking place secretly in Britain. The Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls involved are daughters of immigrants, but they themselves are British nationals needing protection.
"It's not as if this is a shocking Third World thing," London caseworker Heather Harvey said. "It's not foreign. It's here."
This month, ministers from across Europe and experts from UN agencies met in Sweden to define strategies to combat increasing incidents of forced marriage. In the United States, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, is sponsoring legislation to create an office in the State Department to address child marriage.
Snapshot of early marriage
The backwaters of Egypt provide a snapshot of why and how the practice endures. In contrast to more urban areas of the country, where the average age for marriage is rising, these villages still are home to child brides and forced unions.
Daquf is just a 45-minute drive from Minya, a university city of 4 million people, yet its dirt-poor villagers rely on donkey carts and scythes to eke out a living from its green fields and dark soil. Children and marriage are among the few tangible signs of success. In the village of 20,000, one priest estimates that about 70 percent of the girls marry before 18.
But there were glimmers of possibilities in Daquf and three other nearby villages that research groups, and increasingly the government, found intriguing.
All the villages had literacy classes, if somewhat haphazard, that indicated an interest in educating girls. All had sports centers that adhered to new standards from Cairo to create girls-only hours. And prominent community and religious leaders, in conversations with private agencies, seemed willing to address the problem of early marriage.
"I walk around the village and I see a girl only so tall with a baby," said Hilal Mohammed Hassan, a father of four and bakery inspector for the government who devotes long hours to community projects. "I don't claim to know a lot, but you have to wonder how a girl can handle a husband, a baby and all the problems of married life."
"We're talking about a forgotten class in Daquf that is ignored in education, health and everything else."
Hassan, 47, was among the first to hear a proposal from aid groups, including Save the Children, Caritas and the Population Council. They would fashion a comprehensive effort to educate as many as 200 girls in the countryside if the community would agree to a few conditions.
The new program--called Safe Spaces for Girls to Learn, Play and Grow--would demand time, 2 1/2 years of intense study. Sports had to be allowed as a way to build confidence and friendship. The girls would work toward specific goals: literacy, delayed marriage and a clear opportunity to advance to public school.
"It was an effort that pushed all of us," said Sheik Ali Wafdy Mohammed, an imam who, along with the village Coptic priest, was deemed crucial to the project's success.
"This was new for us," Mohammed said. "We are an Eastern community and we have our traditions. Early marriage is a tradition. For me to advise parents and families, I had to be convinced. Once we were convinced, we could convince."
The imam and the priest pressed for straight talk from several doctors about how to address common taboos, Hassan said. Initial parent conferences proved that the learning curve would be precipitous. At one point, a group of mothers bolted from a meeting, too embarrassed to sit with men while they spoke about "ugly things," as one woman said.
They were talking about menstruation.
Hassan recalled that Mohammed had to counsel families that it was OK to talk about reproductive health. Mohammed found a way--calling separate meetings with fathers and then mothers--to answer questions from parents. Then another crisis arose. The girls were handed track suits for exercise classes.
No teenage girl in Daquf, where two-thirds of the families are Muslim, had ever worn pants in public. None had ever played on a field or courts where neighborhood boys could see. Another compromise was divined. Unlike boys, girls would not walk from their homes to the sports halls wearing track suits. They would change once they were inside. Time at the sports center was scheduled so boys and girls never crossed paths.
"We don't take risks on sin," Hassan said. "I can improvise on everything but religion here."
Given their illiteracy and age, hundreds of girls could qualify for the program. Two hundred were admitted for the first class, in fall 2001. Almost every one had to argue her way past her parents to enter. In the first month alone, 10 percent dropped out, and attendance was a constant struggle.
Time and again, teachers went door to door to soothe parents' fears.
Rumors spread across the village, and parents worried: Girls would talk about female circumcision--and eventually they did. Girls would play with boys--a fear that never materialized. Girls would not get married if they went to school. That, parents were firmly told, was exactly the point.
"This is not like trying to add nutrition to a child-care program," said Moushira Khattab, secretary general of Egypt's National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, which provided some funds but kept a distance from dictating specifics. "This is going into a community and getting the community to talk about their most neglected population. Nothing was easy."
No one understood that more than the girls.
A chance at education
By 13, Nora Abdullah had lived through back-breaking years of field harvest and housework. There was never a question that her six brothers would attend school. If Nora begged for a chance, her parents argued that schooling a girl was useless. Nora said she began dreaming about what it would be like to read.
When a woman knocked on her door one day and offered the new course, Nora couldn't spell her own name, but she demanded that the woman write something down that would guarantee her a spot.
"I wanted to learn--if only to be able to read my own name," the girl said. "I fought and fought with my parents over this. Even if I had to pay myself, and I don't know how, I wanted to learn how to read."
Her parents were worn down by her arguments. Warily, they sent Nora ahead.
For Nasra Jamal, the rap on the door tapped the same passion. Her parents didn't argue with their oldest daughter so much about the book learning. It was the idea that Nasra would learn how to throw and kick a ball. Volleyball and soccer were in the curriculum. That, they said, could hurt her marriageability.
They, like most parents, held some very firm, and very wrong, beliefs. They thought a girl could lose her virginity--break her hymen--by stretching her legs. They worried she would lose weight, and that would be a problem in the countryside, where men looking for wives like fat women. They also feared that bright-eyed Nasra, gregarious in daily life, would do something shameful in the heat of the game: shout.
Teachers scrambled to save the sports regimen. Soccer was out, ping-pong in. Doctors held parent conferences for four months. Fathers were given permission to watch their daughters at play. Nasra was allowed to attend class.
The coursework was rigorous. The girls had to quickly learn the Arabic alphabet and numbers. They were grilled on the functions of Egyptian government. They had to figure out how to string letters into words and words into sentences, all on paper for their parents to see, to prove that they were worth something.
Even as the girls pursued their class work, they worried that they were not safe from an early marriage. One 14-year-old was married and sent to another village. Other friends and cousins, whose parents forbade them to join the program, were married soon after their first menstrual period.
One day, Nasra, then 15, heard that her parents had an offer of marriage, and she panicked. She raced to the imam's front door and pleaded. Tall and soft-spoken, he persuaded Nasra's parents to give her more time.
Um Kalthoum Hassan was as nervous as anyone about her chances to stay in school. Her father, deeply conservative, had refused to allow any of his children to attend school, and girls were not allowed to stray far from home. To get into the new program, Um Kalthoum, the oldest child, also implored the imam--who happened to be her uncle--for help.
Mohammed spent days and hours discussing the Prophet Muhammad's teachings with his brother. Nothing in the Koran prohibits women from school, and Islam celebrates educated women, he counseled. Um Kalthoum's father agreed, with one caveat: Every night, the girl would teach her eight siblings.
"I took every class seriously," Um Kalthoum said. "Every class was not just learning letters, it was about the issues we live every day. We learned to cook, we learned to make yogurt, we learned how to make sweets. Every day, I came home and taught everyone."
Over time, the girls began calling their school Ishraq, translated roughly from Arabic to mean Illumination or Enlightenment, and with good reason.
In Um Kalthoum's family, the girls proved so able that the father agreed that a younger daughter should join the class. As younger sisters grew to school age, he bent further. They could attend public school.
There were other surprises. Sports gave the girls a confidence they hadn't anticipated. They became more at ease with their bodies. When teachers began seminars on childbearing, a year into the program, there were simmering anxieties. Tough questions arose--and, again, parent conferences were arranged--but the human body was deemed a legitimate course of study.
The girls learned the names of every body part, and, suddenly, periods and pregnancy made sense. Early marriage, they discovered, went against all health advice. The girls, now 15 and 16, dutifully reported everything back to their mothers. None of their moms, they said in interviews, had ever had menstruation or conception explained to them.
"All the information we had before was wrong. Our parents passed it on to us. And it turns out they didn't know anything," Nora said.
The girls' curiosity veered beyond the lesson plan. By the third year of the program, they finally asked aloud the question they had been talking about among themselves. Why had they all been circumcised between age 9 and 14?
Female genital cutting remains a tradition in some rural cultures, and Egypt has a particularly persistent problem with the practice, a known health risk. Girls endure the removal of the clitoris and other genital tissue, often without anesthetic, and can suffer lifelong complications including extreme pain during intercourse, hemorrhage and urinary infections.
The girls in Daquf were unaware of the debate over circumcision. What they knew was that they had suffered an intimate wrong. Nasra had nearly bled to death after her circumcision at 12. Nora had been told that the slicing up of her labia was a celebration, a special day worth a succulent chicken and sweets. "Now I know that I was lied to," Nora said.
The girls appealed to their teachers to call parent meetings. They couldn't save themselves, but they wanted to save their sisters. They began campaigns in their own homes. The men on Ishraq's advisory board were startled by the effort. After all, they had once wondered whether these girls would ever master a declarative sentence.
Now they heard the girls lecturing their mothers and explaining what would happen to their sisters. Nasra and Um Kalthoum even began holding nighttime seminars in their neighborhoods. It wasn't the kind of talk that the imam wanted to bring up at Friday prayer but, in private conversations, he told the parents that the girls had their facts right.
The girls said they were not sure whether they convinced their parents, but they were certain, no matter what happens now, that their own daughters would not be circumcised.
Power over their lives
In the end, the successes of Ishraq might be best understood in the next generation. A little over half of the original 200 girls graduated from Ishraq. Along the way, five girls married and left the program. But dozens of girls, even among those who didn't graduate, said Ishraq helped them gain power to determine when they would marry. In many cases, they told researchers, they effectively persuaded their parents to let them wait.
Last summer, children were tested for admission to public school. Of the 50 girls who started Ishraq in Daquf, 43 took the exam. Thirty-eight passed.
One of the girls left behind was Nasra Jamal, but not because she failed the exam.
It turns out that Nasra, desperate to go to school, lied in the first hectic days of Ishraq. She told teachers that she was 14 and that a goat had eaten her birth certificate. Public school officials were skeptical. They found Nasra's birth certificate on file in the district government office and realized that she was 19 this fall. She was, they said, too old for 7th grade.
Nasra, who now works in the field and home, was heartbroken. Surprisingly, so was her mother, Nadia, who initially dismissed the idea of education for girls.
"We suffer here," said Nadia, 37, who has six children. "We do very hard work and we never had enough money . . . but, really, I wish Nasra could have stayed on there forever. She'd come home and tell us about every single day. . . . She taught us a lot.
"In my day, you were forced into marriage," she said. "When they brought in the groom, and you didn't like him, you were beaten until you accepted. That was the way it was."
Now, when Nasra gets married depends on the offers and, her mother said, even on Nasra's opinion.
Written scores were only one measure of the program. Word of the Ishraq girls has spread. This year the program was expanded to 300 girls. There is already a waiting list of 280. There are hopes that the program can be replicated in whole swaths of the Upper Nile to as many as 120 villages, but money is the barrier. Government funds are spare.
The British government, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the non-governmental groups that funded the first round of classes are still committed. The U.S. State Department is weighing whether educating girls into womanhood translates into its vision of reform in the Middle East. Ishraq is being considered for hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a broad aid program aimed at spreading and supporting democracy.
"I'd be lying if I said we had a 100 percent success here, but you can say we laid a base," community leader Hassan said. "My motive was simple: for these girls to have a change in their lives. And it's really what happened."
Among the girls who went on to public school, few fear that they will be married before they earn a diploma for finishing 12th grade. Once the least valued of girls, they now are a little special in Daquf.
Nora Abdullah laughs out loud at how they tower over all the other 7th graders. She doesn't really care, she said. She figures that for the rest of her life, she'll always be a bit different.
"I want to get a diploma and use it. I want to be a nurse. Yes. And I will fight for that too, God willing," she said.
Um Kalthoum studies every day and, as a girl who excelled in Ishraq's cooking class, she is among the first to have a job. She bakes and sells honey cookies at a pastry shop opened by her school instructor.
The job offer sparked predictable ire from her father. Um Kalthoum relied on well-honed negotiating skills. She promised to still teach at home and even help her sister who failed the public school test. She would get her sister a job too. All the family, she promised, would benefit from an extra 80 pounds, or $13 a month.
"I think Ishraq taught us how to convince people in what we believed," Um Kalthoum said one afternoon as she cut up sweet rolls and rang up sales from a steady stream of customers. "I was afraid at the beginning. Afraid of school and afraid of this work. I didn't know if I could do any of it. ...
"But there were things in Ishraq that made us strong. And I think," she said, "we're a little stronger than most."
The reporting team
Christine Spolar was the Tribune's Middle East correspondent for three years, covering the Palestinian intifada and the war in Iraq (news - web sites). Her work has won an Investigative Reporters and Editors national reporting award and two Emmys.
Photographer Heather Stone has traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad for a variety of assignments, including the Olympics and Yasser Arafat (news - web sites)'s funeral. She has won many national photo awards.
THE BRIDE WAS 7
Tribune Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek tells the story of Ethiopian child bride Tihun Nebiyu. Read it at: chicagotribune.com