An Islamic official should not have solemnized a marriage in southern Thailand between a 41-year-old Malaysian man and an 11-year-old Thai girl, local officials said Monday amid furor in neighboring Malaysia over the wedding.
Officials in both countries said the case was being investigated. News of the June 18 wedding in Sungai Kolok, a district of Narathiwat province, surfaced over the weekend, angering people in Malaysia. Women’s advocacy groups are asking the new Malaysian government to ban all child marriages over concerns that they violate human rights.
“The Sungai Kolok imam was wrong to marry the couple. He violated the charter of the Islamic Committee, while certainly breaching Thai law,” Safiri Jeha, president of the Islamic Committee of Narathiwat province that is supported by the Thai government, told BenarNews.
“By Islamic principles, a woman can marry when she is mature, about 15 and older.”
The committee plans to meet Tuesday and set up a team to investigate the marriage. Sungkai Kolok sits along the border with the neighboring Malaysian state of Kelantan.
Meanwhile, the director of the foreign affairs unit of the Thai Southern Border Administration Center, a government agency that administers the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking region known as the Deep South, said investigators determined that the girl’s parents were natives of Narathiwat.
“As far as civil and commerce law goes, the practice is certainly illegal,” Teeruth Supawiboonpol told BenarNews. “They did not register at the district office but at a mosque, so they could stay away from the law. We will investigate further and see what we can do.”
In Malaysia, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said Sunday that the incident added to calls for action to increase the legal marriage age to 18 – a plank in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition’s campaign promise. The coalition took power in May after defeating the Barisan Nasional coalition in the country’s 14th general election.
“It is in the best interest of the child,” she said, adding that the move was needed to protect children and avoid issues of pedophilia, child exploitation and child pornography.
Speaking at her ministry’s Eid celebration in Putrajaya on Monday, Wan Azizah, who also holds a portfolio as minister of women, family and community development, confirmed there was an investigation into the marriage. She said officers were trying to determine if there were elements of sexual grooming since the girl is only 11.
A day earlier, Wan Azizah called for the couple to be separated, saying she had consulted with a sharia court judge on the matter.
Malaysia has a civil legal system and a separate Islamic (sharia) legal system. Sharia law, specifically, the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territory) Act of 1984, sets the legal age for marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, allowing for exceptions with sharia court permission. The civil law sets 18 as the minimum marriage age for both boys and girls.
“Any underage marriage has to have the approval of the courts,” Wan Azizah said. “I have ordered a discussion on the minimum legal age for marriage between man and women so that it can be raised.”
Besides the age issue, Islamic family law requires a Malaysian who marries someone in another country to appear before the Registrar of Muslim Marriages to register. The law requires the registration within six months.
The news of the man’s marriage to the girl went viral after his second wife posted a photo on Facebook of her husband, identified in Malaysian media as Che Abdul Karim Che Hamid, and his third bride. She noted sarcastically that her children were the same age as the girl.
The second wife’s online posting included a photo caption in the dialect of Kelantan: “My kids can play with their stepmother after this. All of them will be the same age.”
The groom, identified as an imam or Muslim teacher, defended the marriage in a video released Sunday, claiming it occurred under “nikah gantung,” a Malay term meaning that a couple is married with the understanding that it will be consummated at a later date, in this case after the girl turns 16.
“She will be under the care of her parents. Until she comes of age, we will not be together,” he said in the video.
In June, two women’s advocacy groups urged the new Malaysian government to fulfill an electoral pledge by declaring 18 the legal age to wed and by banning child marriage.
The NGOs Sisters in Islam and the Asia Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women said religious conservatism, patriarchal beliefs and reasons of sexual impropriety are the main drivers of child marriage in Malaysia and the solution would be a total ban on child marriage through reform legislation.
The groom followed the same path of hundreds of men who travel to Thailand to secretly take on a bride.
Thailand’s Deep South draws Malaysian Muslim men seeking to wed second, third or fourth wives without their other spouses learning about the marriage.
The Central Mosque in Songkhla province is a hive for such weddings, BenarNews reported two years ago, where as many as 30 Malaysian couples were marrying there each day.
Imams are compelled to perform such marriages because Muslim law permits them. In Islam, a man can marry as many as four women as long as he can provide for and maintain each of his families equally.
“To not perform the wedding ceremony at the request of the bride and the groom that we know are going to share their lives as husband and wife is sinful,” Sakriya Binsaela, chairman of the Islamic Committee of Songkhla province, told BenarNews at the time.