Children and Sharia
By Helle Merete Brix for Human Rights Service
March 11, 2010
Many years ago in Copenhagen I met a Saudi poet — let’s call her B. She participated in a cultural festival for Arabic writers where I was the compere.
B, who wore tight leather trousers and loose, flowing hair, spoke relatively openly about some of the many problems that exist for freedom of speech and equality of the sexes in Saudi Arabia. But nevertheless she had to speak with some caution as she was due to return to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most restrictive societies.
I remember clearly an episode from B’s childhood which she spoke about. She was a half-grown girl when her mother told her that she had to cover herself up from now on. “Why?”, she asked her mother.
“Because you are beautiful”, replied her mother. “But”, B protested with a child’s logic, “if I am beautiful, why do I have to cover myself up?”
A similar episode plays out in an Iranian film I watched a couple of years ago. The film depicts a fictitious but quite realistic tale about the last day in the childhood of an Iranian village girl. The girl tries to prolong her childhood. She wants to run freely in the countryside and on the beach. She wants to keep playing with boys of the same age. But her mother holds up the black, full length cloak which adult Iranian women wear, ready for her to put on.
Child brides in Yemen and Saudi Arabia
In every society which introduces Sharia, formally or informally, the boundaries between childhood and adulthood are blurred. Girls are “suddenly” sexual objects at a point in time when, in the West, they are expected to be occupied only with play and school. Khomeini reduced the marriageable age for girls to 9. From Yemen and Saudi Arabia we hear barbaric tales of child brides who are married off to men who could be their grandfathers, and who want divorce. But women in these countries are often more or less the property of men from birth to death.
Girls are not the only victims of Sharia; boys are too. Some of the most horrifying stories I have read are about what happened to the boys who deserted from the Iranian army in the 1980s, when Iran was at war with Iraq. The late Iranian-French writer Freidoune Sahebjam wrote about some of these children in his last book: “Reviens Mahomet, ils sont devenus fous” (“Come back Mohammed, they have gone mad”, Grasset, 2007). Sahebjam told me in the Autumn of 2007 that he had received phone calls from angry people who thought he was guilty of exaggeration.
The book is about the barbarous customs of Islamized countries. Sahebjam bases the examples in his book on travels in Iran (illegally, as he had been condemned to death by the Iranian regime), Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries. But what makes the biggest impression is of course his descriptions of the miserable children.
Children are hanged
One of the examples in Sahebjan’s book is a reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the execution of 12-year-old Ahmen in Iran in 1983. He deserted from the army. He never showed up at the barracks but went into hiding. But he was caught and thrown in prison.
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In November 1983 he appeared on Iran’s state TV with his mother. The mother, who was a widow and wore the chador, had lost four sons in the war with Iraq and was willing to give up her last son as well. She was therefore upheld by the interviewer as an exemplary mother. And she did not acknowledge her son. She told the interviewer and the viewers that he was the Devil incarnate. The 12-year old boy cried and was terrified when the interviewer told him that he risked the death penalty for deserting from the army. His mother refused to intercede for him.
As a result of this, Ahmed was hanged publicly three days later. They had to drag him to the gallows, and while he cried for his mother the spectators shouted “Coward, coward!”
Officially, the Iranian regime did not hang children under the age of 14. So Ahmed’s age was never revealed. Two years later, in 1985, an 88-year old grandfather who kept his 13-year old grandson hidden from the army was displayed on Iranian TV by the same journalist. Days after this both the grandfather and the boy were hanged in a Tehran public square.
Muslim countries execute minors
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan and Iran are supposedly the only countries in the world which have condemned minors to death in recent years. Iran leads by a wide margin. An Amnesty International report from 2007, published in The Washington Post, tells of at least 71 minors, i.e. children under 18, who were on death row in Iran. From 1990 to 2007 there were 24 documented executions of people who were minors at the time they were arrested. 11 of them were under 18 when they were executed.
These minors were both girls and boys. The report says that these young people often belonged to minority groups, Iranian Arabs, Afghan refugees and homosexuals and girls who have been sexually abused. In Iran many offences carry the death penalty, among them breaches of the laws of chastity, infidelity, incest, rape, murder and homosexuality.
The execution of 16-year old Atefeh
The BBC produced a documentary, “Execution of a Teenage Girl” about 16-year old Atefeh Rajabi, who was hanged in the town of Neka in August 2004. Her mother was killed in a traffic accident when Atefeh was only 4 years old. Her father was a drug addict. Atefeh was first arrested by the Revolutionary Guard when she was 13 years old. She was sentenced to death on four counts of crimes against chastity. She was jailed the first time for being alone in a car with a boy and for being in a cafe without a male guardian. The fourth time she confessed during interrogation to having had a relationship with a 51-year old man, who she said had abused her. According to the BBC documentary she was also abused by prison guards.
The judges insisted that Atefeh was 22 years old. But her family showed her death and birth certificates to the Iranian journalist who took up her case, documenting that she was only 16 when she was executed.
Atefeh was hanged from a crane in a public square in the religiously conservative town of Neka. Iran has ratified the international conventions that make it illegal to execute minors. But this means nothing. In a country that is governed according the Sharia, children and women are especially deprived of rights. Allah’s law rules above anything else, not least humaneness.
Helle Merete Brix is a Danish writer and commentator. She is a prominent member of the Free Press Society.