Young Muslim teens marrying in Greece with no objections

Under the indifferent gaze of authorities and public opinion, Muslim girls as young as 12 or 13 years old are getting legally married in Greece. This violation of minors’ rights in a member state of the European Union was again highlighted by the extreme case of an 11-year old taken for a wife by a 22-year old man in Greece’s northeastern province of Thrace – home to a 100,000-strong, Turkish-speaking minority. A tribunal in the German city of Dusseldorf, where the couple emigrated last year, recently ordered the couple’s separation, placed the girl in a state-run home and considered launching legal proceedings against the husband, said Ilhan Ahmet, a Muslim deputy in the Greek Parliament. «The problem is that the marriage was perfectly legal,» Ahmet told AFP. Under a Greek-Turkish 1923 treaty, family affairs of the Muslim minority are subject to Islamic law administered by three state-appointed muftis – expounders of Koranic law. The moderate mufti in the town of Komotini, who solemnized the marriage, usually avoids uniting couples less than 15 years old. «But this time, he made an exception to save the face of the two Gypsy families,» Ahmet said, intimating that the girl had been raped. According to minority sources, the two other muftis are even less circumspect, marrying girls and boys respectively from the age of 12 upward, as allowed under Islamic law. The minimum marital age under Greek law is 18 years. Courts allow for exemptions in cases of pregnancy. «There are no marriage statistics for the Muslim minority. But if one considers that the divorces issued by the muftis are five times the national average, one can conclude that many couples get married too early,» said Yiannis Ktistakis, law professor at Thrace University. These divorces are also based on Islamic law. They are usually unfavorable toward mothers, notably in awarding custody rights over children, Ktistakis said. Minority members can theoretically appeal muftis’ decisions in regular courts. But in practice, judges just return the cases to the muftis. Human rights activists and feminist organizations regard the status of Muslim women in Greece as scandalous. «Authorities prefer to turn their eyes away,» said Anna Karamanou, a former member of the European Parliament and feminist activist. Minority affairs are an explosive issue for Greek-Turkish relations. In the absence of an effective childcare system in the country, Greece’s marginalized Gypsy community continues marrying its young under the age of 18, according to a 1999 study by the University of Ioannina. Christian Gypsies marry their children out of church, said Maria Vassiliadou, one of the study’s authors. Progress was nevertheless made in 2004, when proxy marriages, often practiced by the minority, were banned. Ktistakis pleads for curbing muftis’ powers. He also said that Greek and European law must prevail over the minority’s special status, laid down by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between Turkey, Greece and several other European states.