KUALA LUMPUR • The marriage of a 41-year-old Malaysian man to an 11-year-old Thai girl has sparked outrage in the Muslim-majority country, with one activist labelling the groom a "child predator".
Malaysian Muslims below the age of 16 are allowed to marry if they obtain the permission of a religious court.
But Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said yesterday their union was illegal because it had not received the consent of the Syariah Court as the girl was under the minimum legal age for marriage.
The child marriage took place on June 18 across the border in Thailand's largely Muslim far south.
"Our officers have gone to the house and met the girl's mother. We are waiting for more reports before deciding on the next course of action," said Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also Women, Family and Community Development Minister.
The husband, who already had two wives, could be jailed for six months if he married without permission.
His story went viral on social media last Friday after it was shared by his second wife, who lodged a police report at the Gua Musang police station in Kelantan on Saturday.
Speaking at his house yesterday, the man insisted he will remain married to his underage bride despite the outcry.
He promised he will obtain a marriage certificate in five years' time when she turns 16, before they live together.
"I am disappointed by the baseless and ridiculous accusations thrown at me on social media because I married my third wife," he said. "I am looking at this issue carefully to take legal action because of these inaccurate accusations."
He also pointed out that before the marriage, he had met the girl's parents and together, they agreed to have a suspended marriage.
A suspended marriage is when a couple gets married but do not live together for a certain period as agreed upon by the groom and bride's family.
The groom said he first met the girl when she accompanied her mother, who was working at his first wife's restaurant. He claimed that he and the girl have been in love for the past three years.
The girl said she did not mind being his third wife.
"His children are my friends. We were living behind his house for many years," she added.
Her father, who wants to be known only as Mat, said he accepted the marriage proposal because his daughter had agreed to it.
Malaysian activists have called for law reform to end child marriages, which they said is widespread among the country's Muslim population.
Some 16,000 Malaysian girls below the age of 15 are already married, claimed advocates.
"Marrying a 11-year-old girl is like the behaviour of a child predator or paedophile," child activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi told Agence France-Presse.
Mr Syed Azmi said the man was a prosperous trader while the girl's parents were impoverished rubber tappers from Thailand.
Muslim men in Malaysia are allowed to take up to four wives.
Kelantan Syariah Court chief judge, Datuk Daud Muhammad, said both Syariah Court and parental approvals were needed for marriage involving a minor.
"Even if the wedding took place in another country, the bride and groom must seek Syariah Court approval," he said.
The United Nations children's agency Unicef said it was "outraged" by the incident.
"It is shocking and unacceptable. Unicef... calls on the government to make good its manifesto promise to ban child marriage," said the agency's Malaysia representative, Ms Marianne Clark-Hattingh.
Dr Wan Azizah said the minimum age of marriage for girls may be raised from 16 to 18 when Parliament convenes on July 16.