He calls it matrimony. Her parents call it kidnapping. Whatever the case -- and it's a complicated case -- an Afghan mullah finds himself behind bars following his purported marriage to a 6-year-old girl.
Sayed Mohammad Karim, a 50-something religious figure in a village in the central province of Ghor, was arrested this week and charged with kidnapping and marriage to a minor.
The convoluted affair has once again brought the issue and legality of child marriages in Afghanistan to the fore.
Karim claims he received the girl as a "gift" from her parents, who were his religious followers. The parents claim Karim kidnapped their daughter, whose name is being withheld by RFE/RL due to her status as a minor, from their village in June.
Under Afghan civil law, the legal age for marriage is 16 for girls. But the Afghan Constitution also allows for Shari'a law, which can provide an avenue for child marriages.
A common interpretation of Shari'a law in Afghanistan allows for child-age girls to be married, while granting the bride the right to forfeit the marriage upon reaching puberty, when the union can be consummated.
Some of the more liberal and democratic elements contained in the Afghan Constitution are often pitted against its declaration that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."
Girl 'Given As A Gift'
"The girl was given to me as a gift and we were married so I could raise her," said Karim, who was arrested by police in Ghor on July 27.
Religious and social norms in Afghanistan dictate that girls can only live with a man who is not part of the family if they are married. Adoptions are rare in the country.
"After the parents gave their daughter to me they said 'you can take her wherever you want,'" said Karim, who is being held by police in the provincial capital, Firuz Koh. "I gave her to my nephew to take care of but he returned her after a week."
Karim gave no explanation as to why the girls' parents would have provided him a gift. But it is not uncommon in rural areas of the country for people to offer money, livestock, and land to religious figures in a bid to gain favor with God. In rare cases, parents have given away their children to be raised by religious leaders.
"The marriage was performed during [the holy month of] Ramadan in the presence of 30 to 40 people," added Karim, claiming the purported child bride's parents were also in attendance.
The girl's parents, who live in neighboring Herat Province, strongly deny the claims made by Karim, whom they reported to the police in Ghor, where they say the girl was kidnapped.
"This man has said his wedding to this girl was approved by her mother and father," said Mohammad Zeman Azami, the deputy police commander of Ghor. "We spoke to her parents and they strongly deny they attended the wedding. On the phone, the parents told me their daughter was kidnapped."
Karim says he did not have sexual intercourse with Bibi, a claim that has been backed by a local health official.
"An examination was carried out in the presence of two midwives," said Dr. Nashafarin Shihab, who works at the main hospital in Firuz Koh. "The examination showed that the girl had endured no physical or psychological harm."
Masooma Anwar, the head of the provincial women's affairs office in Ghor, described the alleged marriage as "shocking," although she added that some of the details of the case remain unclear.
"Perhaps this girl has been kidnapped, trafficked, or was married to this man," said Anwar. "We cannot determine the facts yet. We are working to find out the 100 percent truth of what happened."
Uptick In Child Marriages
Child marriages are on the rise in Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
"In some regions because of insecurity and poverty the families marry off their daughters at a very early age to get rid of them," AIHRC chief Sima Samar told reporters earlier this month.
Fifteen percent of Afghan women under 50 years old were married before their 15th birthday, and almost half were married before the age of 18, according to the nongovernmental organization Save the Children.
On July 16, a pregnant Afghan girl was burned to death in Ghor. The family of 14-year-old Zahra claimed she was tortured and set alight by her husband's family. Relatives of the teen's husband insist her death was by self-immolation.
Some Afghan women have turned to self-immolation to escape forced, and often abusive, marriages.