Between Intention and Implementation

Recent Legal Reforms on Child Marriage in Contemporary Malaysia

in Journal of Legal Anthropology
Nurul Huda Mohd. RazifPostdoctoral Fellow, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan

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In 2018, news of a 41-year-old Malay man’s marriage to a Thai girl of 11 as his third wife broke out in the Malaysian media, catalysing nationwide concerns on the state of affairs of child marriage in Malaysia. This article analyses the news reports on this child marriage scandal and draws on my own long-term ethnographic fieldwork studying marriage and intimacy in the state of Kelantan to examine the ensuing public and religious debates concerning the amendment of Malaysia’s Islamic family law enactments. I demonstrate that state- and federal-level efforts at curbing child marriage have failed largely due to the lack of consensus amongst the religious and political elite, as well as members of the Muslim community, on what the purpose of marriage is, who – and whose interests – it is meant to protect, and what measures should be implemented to prevent its abuse. Furthermore, child marriage in Malaysia has been ideologically sustained by a rhetoric of ‘masculinist protectionism’ in which men justify their marriage to young girls as an act of care and benevolence to mask a reality of coercion and violence. However, legal reform on child marriage will not only be ineffectual but also inadequate if it is not enforced in tandem with other initiatives such as seeking poverty eradication in rural regions; looking at the feasibility of contracting eloped marriages in Southern Thailand; and carefully reconsidering Malay adat and Islamic norms promoting young and early marriage as alternatives to prolonged periods of courtship.

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