Early or Forced Marriages at the Intersection of Religion, Gender and the State

Published May 24, 2019 by Dr Petra Klug

Dr Petra Klug discusses early or forced marriages at the intersection of religion, gender and the State.

Harmful Cultural Practices

Religious norms, particularly in strictly observant religion, can stand in stark contradiction to gender equality and Human Rights. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) points out that some traditional cultural or religious practices, while reflecting values and beliefs held by parts of a community, can be "harmful to a specific group, such as women".

In the West, and particularly in Western academia, harmful cultural practices are often discussed with regard to misogynist beauty norms to which women are subjected (e.g. Braun and Mathes 2007; Jeffreys 2005). While that certainly highlights important problems, it bears the danger of overlooking harmful practices in a more specific sense of direct violence against women, children and queers. Heteronormative and patriarchal cultural or religious traditions – including conservative Christian, Jewish and Muslim ones – are part of Western societies too. To focus exclusively on the negative impact of mainstream culture and to exclude women from a different cultural background from the rights that Western women claim for themselves would reproduce the racist and ethnocentric ignorance, which was created by the colonial power system (Klug 2016).

One of the harmful cultural or religious practices that also exist in the West are early and forced marriages. While there are academics who stress that not all arranged marriages are forced ones, NGOs point out that it is often misleading to distinguish between very early, arranged and forced marriages because, within patriarchal contexts, the pressure to consent can be very high. Potential consequences of early or forced marriages include domestic violence, child labour and slavery, human trafficking, crimes in the name of "honour", rape, lacking access to birth control, early and consecutive pregnancies, as well as an early exit from the education system and the risk of poverty. All those factors create significant impacts for the health and wellbeing of the victims as well as for their children.

In the discourse about religion, the intersections of religion, gender and the state are often addressed in terms of women's religious identity, women's practices like veiling or feminist (re-)interpretations of religions. But that leaves a particular blind spot in the way we study religion and its impact upon gender relations. I have described before how religion is often defined as of relevance only to its adherents. If we look at common definitions of religion, they typically frame our understanding of religion through its meaning for the religious alone. Consequences of religious beliefs and practices for non-conformists and the nonreligious are systematically understudied. As a result, also gender relations are discussed mainly through the lens of women and queers who practice as opposed to through the perspective of those who are affected by cultural or religious practices. But in societies with strong religious populations or even religious governments, religion creates or fosters power relationships that can affect everybody (Klug 2019). This is true in the public sphere when religion is implemented in political processes and has an impact upon the law. But it is also important in the private sphere, where individual rights are poorly protected and minors are in the custody of their parents. Through the focus on people who practice, this powerful impact of religion upon the most vulnerable groups, the nonconformists and the subaltern often slip our attention. [1]

Gender practices, like forced marriages, often involve children, very young women, rape victims and marginalised sexual minorities within the community, who often have limited agency and are forced into subordination. To focus on religious or cultural practices that involve such power relationships and even violence, can help to develop a more critical feminist perspective in the study of religion and culture.

The Debate about Early and Forced Marriages

In the public debate and in theology, there are controversial discussions about whether early or forced marriages have anything to do with religion or not. On the one hand, there are religious leaders who condemn forced marriages, for example, because they see them as un-Islamic. On the other hand, some faith leaders legitimise such practices because they are part of religious custom. I want to avoid such a debate and focus on the complex empirical interactions between religion and gender violence.

However, in the study of religion, religiously legitimised gender violence is often markedly absent from the scholarly debate. Even for cases that involve child marriages, state intervention is discussed extensively in terms of its consequences for the image of the religious groups but only sparsely for the victims (e.g. Richardson and Wright 2011). And where violence is a topic, it is often debated without any reference to its religious background (e.g. Schröttle 2010). Despite the multi-faceted impact of religion upon gender relations, religiously legitimised gender violence is not part of the debate.

In the feminist discourse, harmful cultural practices including forced marriages are strongly debated at least since Susan Moller Okin's essay "Is Multi-culturalism bad for women?" was published. Okin describes how the traditions of most cultural and religious groups – also of minorities within the West – often limit and harm women, particularly where they are concerned with keeping male power over women. Child marriages, for Okin, help to control whom women marry, ensure their virginity at the time of marriage, and often create an additional power imbalance between husband and wife through a significant age difference. Okin also considers the intersections with the law, and how the consideration of the cultural background has often led to reduced or dropped charges in gender crimes. She concludes that to grant patriarchal cultural groups special rights would ignore the wellbeing of women (Okin 1999).

Responses towards that question usually point to the freedom of religion, to women's agency in matters of culture or to the voluntary character of religious belonging (e.g. Nussbaum 1999). Often they draw on women who choose to veil as a reference point (e.g. Honig 1999) and ask "Is Western patriarchal feminism good for Third World/minority women?" (Al-Hibri 1999) or "Is secularism bad for women?" (Aune et al. 2017) Some postcolonial authors mark secularisation and modernity as normative Western models, which cannot be applied to other religions and, in particular, to Islam (Asad 2003). Furthermore, the attempts to criticise harmful religious practices have led to the accusations of "Saving brown women from brown men" (Spivak 1994). And recently, to the accusations of "homonationalism" (Puar 2007), "femonationalism" (Farris 2011) or the instrumentalisation of gender equality and queer rights for racist and nationalistic politics (Butler 2010).

However, postcolonial feminists have criticised that such a double standard would perpetuate the division of the world along colonial power lines. Haideh Moghissi, for example, points out that Western intellectuals can celebrate cultural difference and the pre-modern while enjoying the benefits of modernity. She reminds us that cultures and traditions always implicate hierarchies, create exclusions and institutionalise power-relations. Cultures are systems of power and perpetuated through a lot of pain and suffering (Moghissi 2002). Therefore, I want to complement the agency- or choice-oriented studies in religion and gender through an approach that focuses on power, vulnerability and the subaltern.


In order to place the situation of the most vulnerable and the subaltern at the centre of the analysis, we need to apply an approach, which incorporates the intersections of different power relations. The concept of intersectionality goes back to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed it out of criticism of anti-discrimination laws that "treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis". This "single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experience of otherwise-privileged members of the group". (Crenshaw 1989, 139–40)[2]

Crenshaw also describes how it was controversial to portray domestic violence within the Black community because it was felt that this would reproduce racist stereotypes of the Black male. Anti-racism then seemed to require the ignorance towards the gendered experience of Black women. This results in the problem that anti-discrimination laws protect Black women only where their experiences equal those of either Black men or white women. The specific experience of Black women falls through this grid (Crenshaw 1989).

We can apply such an intersectional perspective on the case of early or forced marriages. As they occur mainly within religious or cultural minorities, the experiences of the victims are not sufficiently addressed within the current mainstream feminism. But those problems are also poorly addressed within the discourse about minorities. Those who criticise minorities often do that for nationalistic or racist reasons and care little about the vulnerable within the minorities. The other side fears to further demonise already marginalised minority groups through criticism. Similar to the experiences of Blacks as described by Crenshaw, some minorities may fear state agents and law enforcement, which makes it even harder for victims or potential victims to seek help from institutions. This combination of factors leads to the problem that violence against women, children and queers within religious minorities is often ignored.

Intersections of Gender, Religion and the State in the Case of Early and Forced Marriages

Early and forced marriages mostly affect girls and young women. However, there are also boys and young men who are forced into marriages. Furthermore, one of the motives for families seems to be a sexual identity or orientation at odds with heteronormative gender roles. That makes LGBTQI+ particularly vulnerable to forced marriages.

In Germany, those marriages are usually debated with regard to Islam, although cases have been reported from Muslim, Jesidic, Christian and Hindu religious backgrounds, as well as from a "no religion" background. In contrast, in the United States, the debate involves not just immigrant religions and religious minorities, like (Fundamentalist) Latter Day Saints and Orthodox Jews, but also groups with a background in the majority religion, like Evangelical Christians. An attempt to ban exceptions to the minimum age was recently declined by Republican Governor Chris Christy because that "would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions". So, in the complex mix of factors that lead to early or forced marriages, religious norms also need to be considered.

As the OHCHR and several NGOs have pointed out, legal measures play a crucial but complex role in preventing and eliminating early or forced marriages. In the US, the general minimum age for marriage is 18, but this is waived in many states under certain conditions like parental and juridical consent or pregnancy. That has led to child marriages with girls as young as the age of ten. Although there are laws against forced marriages in some states, no prosecutions have occurred under those laws. A further problem is that while minors can get married at very young ages, they often cannot get divorced without an adult advocate or "guardian ad litem". In Germany, the minimum age for marriages is 18. In 2017, following a number of early marriages among refugees, a new law was introduced through which all exceptions to that were outlawed. However, in a study using data from institutions who counsel people at risk of being married against their will, in 53% of all reported cases involving minors the marriage was not (or was not planned to be) registered with the state, but concealed only through a religious or social ceremony. Those cases are not prevented through legal measures alone. Germany introduced a new statutory offense law in 2011, which explicitly outlaws to force someone into a marriage (Seesko 2016). However, the effectiveness of this paragraph §237 or the German penal code StGB is debated and the government lacks information in regard to many crucial questions, including religious marriages that are not registered by the state and the intersections with the rights to asylum and residence. Currently it is also debated in the courts if the new law, which allows no exception for child marriages, is consistent with the Grundgesetz because it could cheat girls of alimony and create problems for their children. The OHCHR also pointed out that in some cases legal measures could be counter-productive because they might deter victims from seeking help because they criminalise family members. Nevertheless, comparing different legal settings shows that tolerance towards cultural or religious practices that harm children and women increases their risk of victimisation. Therefore, in order to address religiously or culturally legitimised gender violence, it is necessary to strengthen a feminist approach to religion and culture that puts the focus not just on agency but also on power and vulnerability.

Petra Klug obtained a Master's Degree in Sociology and Cultural Studies, as well as a Master's Degree in Religious Studies, from the University of Leipzig. In 2018, she finished her dissertation about Anti-Atheism in the United States at the University of Bremen, before starting her postdoctoral project on Early and Forced Marriages. Currently, she is Guest Professor for Critical Theory at Justus-Liebig-University in Gießen. At the Woolf Institute conference on Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State (25-26 March 2019), Petra presented her paper on 'Forced Marriages at the Intersection of Religion, Gender, and the State'.


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[1] Judith Butler, for example, in her recent work rehabilitates the concept of vulnerability but addresses it mainly as an aspect of political practice (Butler et al. 2016). That some girls and women are vulnerable because of their religious and cultural surroundings remains largely ignored in such a perspective.

[2] While I follow Crenshaw in her analysis, I find the term "privilege" of little help here because it implies that not to be subjected to a certain form of discrimination is an unjust advantage that needs to be overcome. Rather than pointing to the "privilege" of Western women, I would point to the different forms of discrimination against non-Western women as well as to a system that inevitably implies power structures and needs to be criticised in its totality.

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