Islam vs. Women: Marriage
This is part one of the Islam vs. Women series. Click here to read the introduction.
Islam is strongly in favor of marriage. "O young people!" said the prophet Mohammed, "whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty." The prophet's companions discussed it, with one telling the other that he should marry, because the prophet of Islam had the largest number of wives, and one should always strive to be like him.
In part one of this series, I will examine and report the way Islam governs, guides, and protects women in their marriages. I will approach this topic from six different aspects, and they are as follows:
In the fourth chapter of the Quran, titled "The Women", Allah said, "give women their dowries graciously." The word mahr means "dowry" in English.
In every Islamic marriage, there is mahr. The mahr is a valuable thing given to the bride by the groom (or his family) as it is decided or negotiated between them (sometimes involving both families). The mahr can be given to the bride immediately or at a later date, also as agreed upon by the two parties, and it is normally recorded in the marriage contract. The thing of value can be an amount of money, a piece of land, debt payment, jewelry, etc., and the purpose of the mahr is to protect the bride in case of divorce or her husband's death. In the same chapter as the previously mentioned verse, Allah forbade Muslim men from taking back the mahr that they gave to their bride, even if they want to divorce her later.
In the seventh century, when Islam was founded by Mohammed, this was presumably helpful for widows and divorcees. After all, Allah had also declared in "The Women" chapter that women had the right to half of their brother's inheritance and that men were allowed to share their wealth between four separate women and their children. When one considers the historical context of mahr, one can think of mahr as a form of life insurance, something for the seventh century woman to help her fend for herself and her children in case the man she married will not or cannot do his duty to provide for her as the breadwinner of the house.
I have two issues with mahr.
The first is that surely if Allah respected and cared about the married woman, he wouldn't make her rely on her husband to survive, even after his voluntary or involuntary absence. Surely, he would provide more direct and long-lasting ways for the woman to fend for herself and her children if her husband fails to do so.
The second issue is that the mahr is painfully and embarrassingly outdated. In the MENA region, girls and women perform better at school and university than boys and men and, in developing countries, are expected to go to work and help their husbands make a living. What does mahr do, then, for the average Muslim society and individual? It is my opinion that in the twenty-first century, all mahr is good for is putting a price tag on a human being.
How does one decide on what the mahr is? Do you lower the value and accept the judgment from your loved ones that you are worth more? Or do you raise the value and demand that you are worth no less than your specified mahr? What is a woman worth? $10,000 in debt paid off? A brand new car? A house? How big of a house, and in what kind of area? A furnaced house or an empty one? Then, once the mahr is paid, what is stopping the man from seeing the woman as property? He paid her. It's not exactly life insurance in the twenty-first century, especially since actual life insurance is a thing in Muslim-majority countries. The average twenty-first-century woman doesn't starve and die if her husband leaves her. So no, it's not life insurance, not anymore.
One thousand and four hundred years is a long time for human development. The concept of wealth has both changed and expanded. Governments, though often far from perfect, give rights to their citizens. In the MENA region and Muslim-majority countries, there are governmental programs that aid and support single mothers and their children. Moreover, there are courts and lawyers that work on dividing custody rights and property ownership between a man and a woman who are getting divorced. The world is simply a much different place from where the prophet was standing fourteen centuries ago.
In the chapter titled "The Women", Allah gave his followers permission to marry up to four women. He warned them that if they feel that they may not be able to handle four wives, then they shouldn't do it.
It is often argued that one of the rights that was given to Muslim women was polygyny, specifically that the whole reason that it was invented was to protect women in the seventh century. The argument is that men could use the four-wife rule to share their wealth with women who needed it, so they could support four families instead of just one.
My issue with that theory is that I could not find anything to support it from the Quran or hadith. As far as I can find, there are no implications that any man should ever marry--and give mahr to--any woman that he does not want to marry. In fact, Allah requires love and affection between married couples, so I'm not sure how that will help the older or undesirable women in the society. Since I cannot find evidence to support that claim, I reject it.
It's important to mention that when a man marries his second, third, or fourth wife, he has no requirement to inform his first, second, or third wife of what he is doing, let alone ask for her/their verbal or written permission.
The closest form of the reform of Islam that I have seen has been related to this topic. Though it happened over 50 years ago, it is worth mentioning because it's a perfect example of improving Islamic practices by rejecting or reforming them.
In the 1950s, Tunisia banned polygyny on religious grounds. Their reason for doing so was the following: Allah allows men to have four wives based on the assumption that each man can approximate how many women he can treat with total equality. Tunisia's stance was that it was simply impossible for one person to treat four women completely and totally equally. On the basis of that dilemma, they banned polygyny. It's an excellent argument that is difficult to refute, considering that even the example of an excellent human (as declared by Allah) couldn't help but have a favorite wife among his many wives.
In this section, I will look at two essential aspects of every marriage between a man and a woman that inherently deal with consent. The first aspect is getting married, and the second is performing sexual acts.
The prophet Mohammed declared that a marriage done by coercion is an invalid marriage. The two participants must be willing to marry; a "no" is not to be ignored when marrying two people. The woman must say "yes"... or be silent. Virgins can be shy, you see, sometimes too shy to say yes, and so, said Mohammed, "her silence means her consent."
Islam strongly discourages Muslim wives from rejecting their husband's sexual advances. If a husband tries to have sex with his wife, and she says no, the angels will curse her until the sun comes up.1
At the time of writing this post (March 2021), marital rape is not recognized as a crime in the following MENA and Muslim-majority countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Guinea, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan, UAE, and Yemen.
From the MENA and Muslim-majority countries that do not recognize marital rape as a crime, the following countries happen to have a law that exists to state that it is a wife's duty to be sexually available to her husband: Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In the faith of Islam, children are not held accountable for their actions until they reach puberty. Once a child reaches puberty, they are now at the age of committing sins and must begin practicing Islam. There are often unwritten, socially accepted "standard" ages, ranging from country to country, and it's normally about 9-13 for girls and about 14-16 for boys. For children who reach the age of puberty, it means that they must begin practicing the five pillars of Islam2, amongst other things. For little girls specifically, this means that they have reached the permitted age of marriage and must cover their awrah.
The prophet Mohammed had many wives in his lifetime. At some point, he had nine concurrent wives. He famously had a favorite wife, and that was Aisha. Mohammed married Aisha when he was around the age of fifty and she was six. He consummated the marriage three years later, when Aisha was nine years old, presumably when she entered her stage of puberty.
To address marriageable age laws in the MENA region and Muslim-majority countries, I am relieved to report that most MENA and Muslim-majority countries have the age limit of eighteen years old for both males and females with no exceptions. However, most is not all, so there are some countries that go much lower than eighteen. I only included the countries that go below the age of 16, and all the following ages are for girls' marriageable age. Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Yemen's limit is 15. Brunei's limit is 14. Iran's limit is 13. Sudan sets its age limit on marriage not at a number, but as "puberty", meaning when the individual child reaches puberty, she is now eligible for marriage.
When researching which countries recognized marital rape as a crime, I found that Bangladesh and Brunei state that marital rape can only occur in a marriage if the wife is under 13 years old.
Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, and Syria have some variation of what is commonly known as the marry-your-rapist law. Generally speaking, when a man commits the crime of abduction or rape, capital law gives him the option of exonerating himself from the crime by marrying his victim.
This law is not Islamic. It is not taken from any Islamic texts or interpretations of the texts, but rather is a result of British and French colonization of the Arab states. This law existed (and still does in a few places) in Europe and South America as well, but it has been repealed in most of the countries of those continents. Italy repealed it in 1981, France in 1994, Turkey in 2005, Morocco in 2015, and many more. However, in the countries listed above, it still exists and is practiced until this day in 2021.
Do not be mistaken. The fact that it does not come from Islam doesn't make anyone look better. In fact, it makes everyone look worse. If the excuse is colonization, then why have these countries not repealed this law yet? Especially since most others have done so decades ago. What possible reason could they have to hang onto this archaic and oppressive rule?
I can take a guess as to why that is. I believe that it is still being held onto and practiced for the two following reasons (both of which will be covered more extensively in future posts):
Honor culture. While "honor killings" are not directly Islamic (there is no verse or hadith telling people to murder their own daughters under any circumstance), they are a natural consequence of the combination of two things: one, Islamic practices and beliefs about women and their sexuality, and two, socioeconomic status of individuals and communities.
The lack of rape laws in original Islamic texts. This was the only hadith I could find that addresses rape as a crime, and it's too outdated to directly apply to today's society. The punishment depended on what your class was, were you a male slave or a free man? Did you rape a virgin slave girl or a non-virgin slave girl? It requires picking apart and having to rely on interpretations for how to apply this to the twenty-first century.
The good news is that divorce is legal in Islam.
The bad news is that it's much easier for a man to divorce his wife than it is for a woman to divorce her husband.
The procedure is as follows: the man verbally says to his wife, "I divorce you." If she is on her period when he says this, then it doesn't count, and he has to wait until she is not menstruating anymore. If she is not on her period when he makes that statement, he may then wait for three "menstrual cycles" before the divorce is initiated (the purpose of this, Islamic scholars say, is to make sure that the woman is not pregnant when her husband walks out). During this time, he may reconcile with her if he pleases it. Once this time has passed, he may proceed with the divorce. The wife's thoughts or feelings make no difference one way or another during the entire process.
That's it. There is no procedure for women who want out of their marriage in the original religious texts.
Today, if a Muslim woman wants to get divorced, she will typically ask her husband to "grant" it to her, i.e. by going through the steps described above. If he says no, she may then take legal action by presenting her case to a religious court. She must argue her reasons for not wanting to be married anymore. The amount of compassion that these courts display varies widely across different sects and countries.
Angels carry a lot of weight in Islam. Generally, Muslims want them in their house, like spirits that have a positive presence or effect. In one hadith, the prophet said that angels do not enter a house that contains a picture or a dog. That's something you want to avoid, because you want angels to favor you. In reference to the hadith on rejecting one's husband's sexual advances, one absolutely does not want angels to curse at them, and certainly not all night.
In Islam, there is a list of mandatory practices and they're referred to as the "five pillars." As a Muslim, one must do these five pillars in order to go to heaven. They are as follows: (1) Shahada, which directly translates to "witness." You must profess the following: "There Is No God but Allah, [and] Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah." This is also what you say when you convert to Islam. (2) Prayer. Five times a day: at sunrise, at noon, in the afternoon, at sunset, and in the evening. It is essentially one prayer with five different variations. (3) Zakat, which is giving money to charity. (4) Fasting. Generally in the month of Ramadan, but there are other holy nights when people choose to fast. (5) Haj, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. You must do this at least once in your entire life.