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Muslim women and choice in marriage


June 21, 2009



Recently I saw the Doha Debates which is a show that debates controversial political, social and religious issues.  Journalist and mediator, Tim Sebastian proposes a motion and the speakers on the panel discuss the topic at length. The audience then has an opportunity to respond to the panel. The latest motion proposed was ‘This house believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose’.


There were four speakers on the panel. For the motion there was American Muslim feminist Asra Nomani who has authored several books. Also for the motion, there was Dr. Muhammad Habash a Parliamentarian and Cleric.  Against the motion were Shaykh Yasir Qadhi and Dr. Thuraya Al Arrayed, a Saudi writer, columnist and member of the advisory board of the Arab Thought Foundation.


Nomani began the debate with an emotional tone, declaring that Muslim women face barriers and that “just about every Muslim woman” encounters these barriers and internalizes them, and that she does not have the right to choose when it comes to marriage. She then directly addresses Muslim women and reassures them that she doesn’t wish that they suffer forced or loveless marriages.


With the way Nomani is carrying on, you’d think she was convinced she was shaking the very sheltered world of Muslim women. Apparently we’re not aware of our rights!  In her self-aggrandising, Nomani homogenises Muslim women’s experience and assumes that every Muslim woman has had the same experience as her. That yes, we are all doomed to the same fate.  True, there are Muslim women like Nomani who marry either through some sort of coercion but just to keep their family happy–I also agree with her point that these women will be the ones who share their bed with their husbands at the end. However, Nomani seems to think that these experiences are the experiences of the vast majority of Muslim women–where we are helpless beings who are victims of our community and our imposing families who Nomani assumes don’t want the best for us. She thus undermines the importance of family within the context of Muslim marriage.  I’m not saying women have to follow the decisions of families but many women and men will be thinking that family does matter in many of the decisions we make for ourselves, including marriage.  In other words, choice comes with responsibility and it  does at times mean we consider everything, not just ourselves.


Nomani’s entire argument is predicated on a particular construction of the Muslim woman which she deploys to legitimise her claim: She is just chattel, in shackles, and silenced by her subjugation. Nomani belittles the minds of Muslim women because she assumes they lack agency of their own and cannot comprehend their supposed suffering.  In doing so, Nomani constructs herself as their savior, the enlightened one who recognises their oppression– the liberal light at the end of this oppressive dark tunnel that is their unfortunate experience.


I found it interesting that Nomani’s extremely liberal position was juxtaposed with the other Muslim woman who was opposed to the motion.  Dr. Al Arrayed opposes the motion because she believes that anyone 27 and under basis their decisions on physical attraction and that they are not responsible enough to be making important decisions like this– so the role of the family is essential.  Her simplistic position is mired by her lack of faith in young Muslim women and their responsible attitude to such issues like marriage—which a woman in the audience pointed out.  However, I do agree with Dr  Al Arrayed’s overall point that family is important in these decisions and it is dangerous to deny this reality because it could lead to women being isolated.  


What was interesting is the issue of children did not come up in the debate. For me, my decision to marry a Muslim man is affirmed when it comes to the faith of my children. I would not want my children to belong to any other faith but Islam. Keep in mind; this is not only an issue women who marry non-Muslims have to face but also men who do.


Supporting the motion, Dr. Habash, begins his defense declaring there is no compulsion in religion and so we should extend this to marriage too. (I think he was a little confused with his position and often would agree with the opposing side) However, no compulsion in religion does not mean a Muslim shouldn’t abide by the laws of her religion—she has the choice not to of course but if she wishes to practice her religion, there are certain rules and practices that need to be followed as part of worship.  Sure, a Muslim woman can marry who she wants, but the question here is, is there religious justification for this unlimited freedom?  Dr. Habash refers to the hadith of when the Prophet was approached by a woman who told him of how she was forced to marry but later agreed with her father’s decision. The Prophet then told her he’ll absolve the marriage but she assured him she was now happy in her marriage but wanted to let women know that the father has no right to do such a thing which the Prophet agreed.  Habash takes from this hadith the principle that women should be able to choose who she should marry, regardless of the faith of the person. However, as Shaykh Qadhi points out, we cannot be selective with our religion because Habash is ignoring what Islam has to say about a woman marrying a non-Muslim. 


As I listened to Nomani’s concern over the depressing fate of Muslim women, I thought, why isn’t she mentioning the importance of recognizing cultural ideas and customs that have infiltrated how we conceptualise and perceive Islam.? Her analysis was simple: Muslim women are downtrodden; there was no attempt to contextualise and understand this further.  To compensate for Nomani’s reductive observation, Shaykh Qadhi  (and Dr. Al Arrayed ) point out  that yes, there are women who are oppressed in our communities in the name of religion, but Islam is not responsible for any oppression that occurs, rather it is cultural and tribal prejudice which justify oppressive practices. These practices are the antithesis to Islam’s principles of equality and justice which are protected in its law. Importantly, Shaykh Qadhi explains how  this is not a problem of the uneducated In our community but those who have committed themselves to the study of religion, who may consciously or unconsciously introduce their own cultural prejudice that affects how they view Islam. This was imperative to the debate I thought because of the dichotomy that Nomani was desperately trying to establish.


Nomani was positing herself as the liberal defender of Muslim women against the oppressive religious leadership that Shaykh Qadhi—with his long beard (as opposed to the more subtle beard of Habash) represented.  When Shaykh Qadhi objected to her removal of any boundaries and warned that limitations are a part of our religion, she would turn to the audience and say “that is their interpretation” in her attempt to marginalise him. In fact, she was well prepared for this response and early on in the debate warned of the theological arguments that she claimed lay the barriers for women.


Shaykh Qadhi undermined this false dichotomy in pointing out that there are elements of the religious establishment who are tainted by cultural understandings and that we should resist this. However, Nomani wasn’t interested in hearing a Shaykh criticise women’s oppression in our community— that was simply not the role Nomani had decided for him.


Furthermore, Nomani seemed to think independent interpretations have more sway than scholarship consensus.  She fails to grasp the importance of having boundaries and unlimited freedom which any liberal will argue needs to be contextualized.  Nomani’s discrediting of scholarship reminds me of another Muslim journalist Irshad Manji who also has a similar position. I wrote about the dangers of such independent thinking divorced from engagement with Islamic scholarship and Sharia.  These women who have no credentials in such areas but have built careers by commenting on them–they differ from scholars like Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi who I am not necessarily agree with on many issues but I do respect their efforts to protect the rights of women by working within the traditional scholarship and delving into it to extrapolate their views.


Like Manji, Nomani also legitimizes and justifies  her claim by making references to popular misconceptions of Islam in her quoting of Qur’anic verses out of their proper context: The supposed beating of women sanctioned in the Qur’an which Hamza Yusuf explains well here;  and forbidding friendship with Christians and Jews.  The latter she strategically mentioned because many would be aware of her friendship with Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl who was killed in Pakistan and thus admire her for not being the kind of Muslim she was painting those who disagree with her as.  Nomani’s use of these examples is not only offensive to Muslim women but also to their Islamic faith.  Nomani seems to think that this is an issue of a lack of liberty in Islamic understanding toward women but as Shaykh Qadir points out,  if we return to the Prophetic teaching in order to understand the status of women in Islam we will realize that our tradition is the place of vindication. The Prophetic period is where we can break away from a hermetic Islamic discourse and our cultural impinges on Islamic practices by looking at how women were a part of the political, economic and cultural community. The women of this period were successful business women (Khadija), scholars (Aisha), soldiers (Nuseiba) and specifically relevant to this debate is how Khadija herself had proposed to the Prophet. These men and women are models for the Ummah and aren’t understood as oppressed but liberated–they certainly do not fit into Nomani’s construction of Muslim women and Islam as a whole.


In the end, the motion was passed (62%). I was actually surprised but Shaykh Qadhi explains in his piece on the debate that it was likely to be because of the vagueness of the motion which stressed freedom to choose rather than Shariah ruling on the issue.  But the fact that these kinds of discussions are taking place between Muslims (both men and women)  is a step forward in providing a space to discuss issues that impact on the lives of Muslim women.





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Posted in Culture, Feminism, Islamophobia, Media, Polemic, Quran/Hadith, Sharia, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »



One Response to “Muslim women and choice in marriage”

 Soraiya Says:


June 21, 2009 at 10:11 pm

I agree with Shaykh Qadhi that the moot was problematic in that it disguised two issues about choice in marriage. The first issue being whether a Muslim women can marry a non Muslim man and the second issue being about restrictions based on culture. One is based on Islamic thought and the other on cultural norms. The idea of only marrying a Muslim man is so that a women can be assured to practice her faith and raise her children as Muslim. I come from an India context and it is almost impossible to imagine a Muslim women married to a Hindu man being able to fulfill these goals within such a marriage. Cultural reasons are not due to Islam and have widely different motivations depending on the particular context. Restrictions based on culture can also change over time. Case in point, my parents would not have been allowed to marry someone from a difference province, but now they would be ecstatic if I married an Indian or a even a Pakistani. But marrying a Muslim is still the bottom line. However I understand the issue Noumani has with the internalized fear that many women have over their choices. If presented with a great guy who isn’t Muslim do you marry him or do you pass up the opportunity and wait for the perfect Muslim man(and will you ever find him).I also agree with Noumani that if a women chooses a non Muslim man they risk being excluded from their faith community. The choice between faith and a man can be a difficult one for many women, a choice that Noumani believes shouldn’t have to be made. The other problem that I had with the debate is that it created a perception that Muslim women are the only women that are restricted in their choice of marriage partner, when in fact Jewish, Hindu and Christian women face similar restrictions (although this is dependent on their specific communities). I remember in the movie ‘My Big Fat Greek wedding’ the guy had to get baptised as a Greek Orthadox to get married to his girlfriend. However these restrictions are invisible in the public consciousness. Instead there is a perception that only Muslim women have any restrictions placed on in terms of marriage. I think the debate was all over the place but has sparked some interesting discussion.

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