Friday, 15 July 2011
The new Muslim marriage contract should empower women
It is no surprise that household chores are the bane of many marriages, and the competing demands of modern life have compounded this situation for women in particular. Who, then, wouldn't jump at the chance to sign a marriage contract that potentially exempts women from wiping up vomit and scraping hair out of the plughole? Yet most people gasp with shock when I explain to them that Muslim women are able to stipulate such conditions in their marriage contracts – and that Islamic law sanctions this choice. Far greater coverage is afforded to the issue of forced marriages (which are strongly opposed by Islam and also take place in other minority communities) as well as the oppressive treatment – both real and perceived – of Muslim women who are in consensual marriages. Such stories fly in the face of Islamic teachings, which emphasise love, kindness and mercy between spouses.
Last Friday, I attended the relaunch of an initiative that aims to bridge the lacuna between the rights Muslim women have in theory, and the deprivation of these rights that some of them experience in practice. The new Muslim marriage contract, which was originally launched in 2008 after four years of extensive research and consultation, revives Islamic opinions that are more consonant with the spirit of egalitarianism. It was drafted by Muslim Institute trustees Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui and Mufti Barkatullah, as well as Muslim Women's Network chair Cassandra Balchin, and has also acquired a new website.
The main reforms include removing the requirement for a wali (marriage guardian) for the bride, who, as an adult, can make up her own mind about whom to marry; enabling the wife to initiate divorce and retain all her financial rights agreed in the marriage contract; and encouraging mosques to register to perform marriages (so that they are automatically recognised in British law without a separate civil ceremony). As Siddiqui explained at Friday's event, he was aware of only a handful of mosques who have registered their premises so far.
Of course, no amount of paperwork will provide a miracle cure for any arrangement that is entered into with less than noble intentions. However, the Muslim marriage contract ensures a higher standard of redress for women caught up in these situations. It also provides an excellent negotiating tool for thorny issues that can throw even the most idealistic couples, such as financial management, where to live, and contact with extended family on both sides (as Heidi Withers discovered when her prospective stepmother-in-law unfairly chastised her for being "uncouth" in an email that recently went viral).
While the Muslim marriage contract has received support from community organisations, politicians, family lawyers, academics and theologians, some level of censure was expected from certain groups and individuals. At Friday's seminar, Siddiqui described how some marital interactions had been coloured by "cultural practices masquerading as religious duties". He cited the case of a man with multiple wives whose offspring felt they were treated unjustly compared to their half-brothers and -sisters. The thread running through many of these cases is the dominant party's desire to maximise their rights at any cost, while failing to uphold – or even consider – the responsibilities that accompany these rights. They forget that the main reason polygamy was allowed in the first place – according to many scholars – was to provide security and respectability to war widows, orphans, and divorced and destitute women. Yet in these supposedly enlightened times, many divorced Muslim women struggle to find suitable partners for remarriage (whether the men in question are involved in polygamous arrangements or not).
It is inevitable that such people would attempt to discredit any initiative that threatens the status quo. In the past, they may well have succeeded in silencing these voices, but they are taking on a larger network of determined activists – from Casablanca to Coventry – who will not rest until women's empowerment is achieved.