1920-1939 | Child marriages | Palestine

27 JUNE

BRITAIN REBUKED OVER LEGITIMATING CHILD MARRIAGE IN PALESTINE

Women and children in a Bethlehem street, c. 1930s.
Matson Collection – the Library of Congress via Wikimedia.

[ 27 June 1933 ]

On 27 June 1933, the League of Nations Mandates Commission questioned A. M. Young, the Chief Secretary of the government of Palestine, on the the British reluctance to tackle the issue of child marriage in Palestine. Ten years earlier, the country had officially been declared a League of Nations mandate under British administration, but it was effectively run from Whitehall as a virtual colony in all but name.

Valentine Dannevig, the Norwegian representative, pointed out that, under the draft legal code which the British were proposing, children under the age of thirteen could be married if the child had attained puberty and if the authorities deemed that ‘no physical ill effects would result from the consummation of the marriage.’  Dannevig reminded Young that these legal proposals ‘did not at all satisfy those working for the protection of children’ and that ‘it was a great disappointment that, in a country like Palestine, the law should be more backward than in the surrounding Muslim countries.’1

Young promised that ‘Dannevig’s remarks would be brought to the notice of the Palestine government without delay,’  but it was not until three years later that the British administration finally raised the minimum age for marriage and then only to fifteen.2 For years it had faced down demands from the Jewish Women’s Equal Rights Association, Arab feminists and even its own officials that child marriage should be outlawed, and leading politicians such as the former prime minister David Lloyd George, lent their support to an organisation that fought for the right of Palestinian families to forcibly marry their children and warning feminists that their protests were being exploited by secular minded Zionists conspiring to take over the country.3

During the previous nineteen years of British rule over Palestine many hundreds, if not thousands, of young children had been married, often in conformity with the rulings of the Islamic or Jewish rabbinical courts in their communities. The census figures for 1931 showed that about two hundred Muslim, ten Jewish and twelve Christian girls had been married while under the age of fifteen and such marriages were even more common among the Bedouin who were largely excluded from such census data. Local government reports also suggested the census figures were an extraordinary underestimate. It was a particular problem in the district of Hebron where child marriages were estimated to exceed ‘well over 50% of the total,’ according to one British official, who added that in many instances ‘the children are tied down with ropes for marriage.’4

FOOTNOTES

  1. Valentine Dannevig cited in League of Nations: Permanent Mandates Commission: Minutes of the Twenty Third Session: Fourteenth Meeting held on Tuesday, June 27th, 1933, at 3.30 pm accessed online at url https://unispal.un.org/unispal.nsf/9a798adbf322aff38525617b006d88d7/49984b1f39ed3a1805256616005641af?OpenDocument
  2. Margalit Shilo, Girls of Liberty: The Struggle for Suffrage in Mandatory Palestine, Brandeis University Press, 2016 p. 107.
  3. Assaf Likhovski, Law and Identity in Mandate Palestine, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2006, p. 95 and Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, Abacus, London, 2014, p. 168
  4. Ibid., p. 94.

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