Safia Mahjebin (Hunter College, 2019) – who played a starring role in passing the 2017 New York law that raised the marriage age from 14 to 17 – will use her federal Truman Scholarship to pursue law and doctoral studies. She wants to codify the kinds of grassroots change that she already is engaged in and “create a paradigm shift that harmonizes Islam and human rights.”
Her fight against child and forced marriages stems from personal experience. Born in Dhaka, she and her family left Bangladesh for Brooklyn’s Bangladeshi community when she was 3.
“My parents started trying to marry me off when I was 10,” she says. “Marriage is a tool for making sure a child is under control and protected. They believe they’re looking out for her best interests, but they’re often putting the child in devastating, often violent, situations where she loses education, has children in poverty and gives up her hopes and dreams. A 14-year-old girl with a 40-year-old man would be considered statutory rape, but in most states, because they’re married, it isn’t.”
Mahjebin was shocked to learn that child marriage was legal in all 50 states, affecting minors of all backgrounds, races and faiths. Testifying to the Assembly, she noted that in New York nearly 4,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2010 ; more than 84 percent were minor girls marrying adult men.
She fended off her parents by citing Islam. “I’d study religion on my own and found a case where a girl said, ‘My parents forced me into a marriage. I agreed to marry out of duress,’ and the Prophet Mohammad said, ‘Your marriage is null and void in the eyes of God because you must have the full and free consent of both parties.’ That is a paradigm of marriage that was never presented to me. Rather, marriage is seen as a communal affair and you’re supposed to put your parents’ desires in front of your own.”
She has won the respect of mothers in her community who bring their young daughters to talk with her about their rights under Islam. Paramount, she says, is the right to say no to child or forced marriage and to unhealthy or abusive relationships. She sees this as spiritual empowerment.
Academically, she researches the link between climate change and child marriage in Bangladesh, where rising seas and severe natural disasters prompt peasants to marry off their daughters in hopes they will find better lives. And, supported by a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, she examines how the West has constructed an unrealistic image of Muslim women that seems more to further a Western political agenda than to empower actual women.