Along the Faultlines of Religion, Politics, and Gender: Early Muslim Responses to the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929

Presenter: Ateeb Gul, Doctoral student (Islamic Studies), Department of Religion

Abstract: In 1929, the Imperial Legislative Council of India that was established under the British colonial empire passed the Child Marriage Restraint (Sarda) Act, 1929, designating the minimum age of marriage to 18 for boys and 14 for girls. While the Act faced resistance from the orthodox sections of both the Hindu and Muslim communities, Muslim responses in particular displayed umbrage. However, it is not until we look at the responses of Muslim women that are available to us in Urdu print publications of the time that we see how the Muslim response to the Act was not homogenous—it was, in fact, deeply divided along the faultlines of politics, religion, and gender, though not of class since all three groups that I will study enjoyed some kind of societal privilege. Having said that, in all three cases, these faultlines, sooner or later, and to one extent or another, coalesced into formal resistance against the British empire. In this paper, I attempt to contribute to the academic literature on this crucial episode in South Asian history in three distinct but inter-connected ways. First, I collect and analyze the responses of a large segment of the male Muslim political elite who launched staunch criticisms of the Act by invoking the ideas and ideals of religious freedom and sovereignty. I argue that this response literature follows the same resistance model as was seen in other parts of the Muslim world where colonizers had attempted to intervene into Muslim Family Law, thereby helping the local Muslim leadership delineate it as the last bastion of Muslim sovereignty, self-respect, and self-governance. This delineation of Muslim Family Law as a stronghold of residual Muslim sovereignty shaped the legal discourse in those societies for decades to come, especially in Pakistan and India. Second, I collect and analyze the responses of Muslim religious scholars (‘ulamā’) for whom the Act provided an impetus to develop an entire body of theological literature on the controversy surrounding the age of ‘Ā’isha bt. Abī Bakr at the time of her marriage to Prophet Muḥammad. There is now roughly a century of scholarship in the Urdu language that rests on the continuing discourse between the traditionalists (who argue that ‘Ā’isha was six years old) and the revisionists (who argue for a much older age)—this entire body of religious literature emerges from the British empire’s attempt to increase the minimum age of marriage in pre-Partition India. Third, I collect and discuss the responses of formally-educated Muslim women who seem to have overwhelmingly supported the Act when it was first proposed and passed. In my archival research of the women’s literary magazines from the period, I have discovered articles written by formally-educated women, almost all of whom support the Act since it allows girls to get relatively more mature before they are married off to start their own families. In this section, I will build up on the recent scholarly works focusing on the role of print publications in empowering South Asian Muslim women to define themselves in relation to religious nationalism.

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Co-sponsored by the School of Theology

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