Minister appeases hardliners on child marriage bill

ISLAMABAD: The religious affairs minister on Tuesday seemed appeasing mullahs who failed to stop the introduction of a private bill in the National Assembly that seeks to make child marriage a cognizable offence with higher punishment for violations.

The bill, brought by five lawmakers of the ruling PML-N, invited a retrogressive tirade from Maulana Mohammad Khan Shirani, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and a member of the government-allied Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), who, along with another party colleague, called the move contrary to Islam and the Constitution, pressing a stance that recently outraged liberal circles and rights groups.

The Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Sardar Mohammad Yousaf, did little to conceal his apparent tilt towards Maulana Shirani’s ideas, saying the house standing committee asked to vet the bill should take CII opinion on the issue or send the draft to the council if deemed necessary — a course that could put the fate of the bill in great doubt.

Also, there seemed little coordination on Tuesday among opponents of child marriage despite a recent denunciation of Maulana Shirani’s views by a parliamentary women’s caucus as only the lead author of the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, Marvi Memon, stood up to advocate its cause to prevent marriages below the adulthood age of 18 for reasons of health hazards to girls and social problems.

While opposition parties like the PPP and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) refrained from making a common cause with members of the ruling party, none of even Ms Menon’s own party colleagues challenged Maulana Shirani’s claims that the bill violated several articles of the Constitution forbidding legislation contrary to Quran and Sunnah.

“Such laws relating to religious issue should not be brought directly … without reference to the Council of Islamic Ideology,” said Maulana Shirani, who was later vehemently endorsed by his party colleague Maulana Ameer Zaman.

“Nobody differs with what the Maulana said (about CII opinion),” Mr Yousaf said, adding: “The committee will consider those recommendations.”

The bill seeks to amend the British-era Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, to empower family courts established under the Pakistan Family Court Act, 1964, to take cognizance of an offence and to provide for a punishment with up to two years’ rigorous imprisonment, or with a fine of up to Rs100,000 (instead of the presently provided one month’s simple imprisonment of and a fine of Rs1,000) , or with both. A defiance of a court injunction will also be punishable with up to one year’s imprisonment of either description or a fine of Rs100,000, or with both.

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