Fighting child marriage in Sudan

Asha el-Karib, a Sudanese feminist and activist, doesn’t think ten-year-old girls should marry, or that all women be required to have a male guardian. She’s presented some 120 articles of “alternative legislation” to the Sudanese public that would change these and other family and marriage laws now in effect in Sudan. For this, she’s been branded anti-Islamic and a tool of foreign states.

El-Karib is the founder of the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development, an NGO that receives some funding from the Canadian International Development Agency through the Canadian NGO Inter Pares. She spoke with Maclean’s in Ottawa, where she had come to meet with members of Parliament and staff at CIDA.

“In our view, the family remains an areas where the subjugation of women is reinforced,” she says.

El-Karib spent more than a year researching the effects that sharia, or Islamic law — which provides the basis for family law in Sudan — has on women’s health and education before designing something different. Her proposed legislation would raise the legal age for women to marry to 18, among other changes. Though secular, it is heavily influenced by laws in Muslim countries such as Morocco. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, the Sudanese government scorns el-Karib’s work.

“They never discuss the laws with us. They just say you are anti-Islamic and you are following a Western agenda,” she says.

El-Karib does get support from some Sudanese journalists, including time on television to talk about her ideas. Recently, during a television call-in show, a viewer berated the host for allowing el-Karib to appear on the program. Like many of her opponents, he said she was a pawn of the West.

“I said, ‘I don’t get my legitimacy from you. This is an issue that concerns me and I have full rights as a Muslim to talk about the law that governs me.’”

Accusations of being a Western lackey don’t offend her, says el-Karib, but she finds them frustrating. “I do feel sometimes a bit of anger for not being understood right. I’m known in Sudan for being a women’s activist and for coming from a progressive family. These are not ideas coming from the West. They’re part of my heritage.”

El-Karib doesn’t expect any of her proposed laws to be adopted as long as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is in office. She’s waiting for a change in government. “What we’re hoping to do is inspire people that there is an alternative,” she says. She doesn’t want Sudanese women to think they’re doomed forever to live as they do now.