Thursday, August 4, 2011

Malay-Muslim marriage customs.

There are many aspects of wedding-related Malay customs that I find problematic but it is difficult to point them out or resist them on my own, because the nature of culture is that it is shared by many people, who collectively make them last through the generations.

The first is the separation of the bride and groom during the Islamic solemnisation ceremony, known as the akad nikah (lit. marriage contract). While there are no set rules on where to place the couple during the ceremony, it seems that Malays wish to place the bride anywhere but beside the groom himself. Some families isolate the bride in her own room while the ceremony takes place between the groom and her guardian outside. Some families place the bride in the same area but she is either on a different chair, facing a different direction, a distance behind - basically anywhere that the groom cannot directly look at her.

The main attraction involves the groom being able to recite the preset contract dialogue stating his acceptance of the bride with a chosen mahr with the guardian or registrar smoothly and in one breath. How does a bride feel married when her role is passive (giving consent) and not active (stating a wish)?

Spot the bride
Source: http://danielzainphotography.blogspot.com/



Second, people here are often shocked if Muslims choose to marry in a civil ceremony with the Registry of Marriages (ROM) instead of a religious one with the Registry of Muslim Marriages (ROMM), because it implies an inter-religious or non-religious marriage. They might also think that the presence and permission of a guardian is important. (Yes, you read right: I consider marrying ROMM-style a custom! Haha.) 

But I think that the spirit behind both types of marriages are the same, except that a civil marriage allows more freedom in determining the solemnisation procedure. The bride and groom can face each other or face the same direction; they are allowed to stand beside each other in anticipation of the mutual partnership and promise that marriage brings. In other words, I think a civil marriage embodies the spirit of Islamic marriage more - ironically.

Third, the excessive exchange of  gifts and money. I concede that in many (if not most) cultures, marriage is basically a contract between two families involving material assets. In Malay engagements and marriages, hantaran (trays of various gifts) are exchanged, and the groom is also socially required to pay an expensive brideprice to the bride or her parents - correlated with her educational level.

The 'market rates' (according to my mum) are around SGD3000 to SGD4000 for brides with less than university education, SGD10,000 for graduates and SGD12,000 for postgraduates - argh! It's no wonder that some Malays are not keen on having their women study too much! From my personal observation, Malay couples who don't agree with such wastage find it hard to not conform to adat because their families expect this:

A dizzying array of gifts: shoes, chocolate, fruit, clothes, perfume, wallet, watch, towels

I'm not saying we should all scrap hantaran because it is acceptable if it's a mutual agreement between spouses (4:24). But I do find it insulting that it's related to the woman's level of education. It suggests that the more educated a woman is, the more difficult it will be to marry, because the groom has to pay more. Since the hantaran could also be directed to the bride's parents, it also suggests that the family is being compensated for the loss of the earning power of their daughter.

The hantaran could also be used to offset some of the costs of a wedding reception, which suggests that the more educated the woman, the bigger the reception should be. Generally, these requirements of adat tends to delay a marriage because of the required financial and logistical resources (and we haven't gone into the environmental aspect of all that use of organza and cut flowers!)

Immediately following the solemnisation, some hadith-aware grooms recite a supplication while placing his hand on his new bride's forehead, to ask "O God, I beseech You for the good that You have placed in this, and I seek refuge in You from the evil that you have placed in this." Apparently, this supplication is traditionally recited upon the acquisition of something new. Notice how this is one-way and also implies that there is 'evil' in the bride! Plus this was originally a supplication meant for the acquisition of a new camel (where holding the head makes total sense), what's the link?


Another custom after the solemnisation is to get the bride to kiss the groom's hand, while he kisses her forehead. A long time ago, this might have been the first time the couple touches each other. But today, most couples have probably held hands during the courting stage. The customary or traditional reason some give for these gestures is the nullification of one's wudu' (state of ablution). To me, why is this the point when ablution can be easily nullified by going to the toilet (haha).



And besides, doesn't marriage create a halal (permitted) relation between husband and wife? How are they going to live together, kiss or salam each other hello and goodbye and pollute (i.e. nullify ablution) each other in each instance? In any case, I also find it absurd that skin contact between a husband and wife is considered to be polluting - which is the opinion of some Islamic schools of thought except for the Maliki, Hanafi, and the Shia - a concept not found in the Quran.

These customs are the creations and ideas of Man - whether imam, scholars, or family - and Man's opinions are just that, and should be able to be refused or accepted without social consequences. I find the idea of guardianship unwarranted, and I find the idea of hantaran wasteful and excessive. As long as the divine requirements for marriage are met (mahr and family/people's permission), couples should be able to make the choice of not marrying according to Malay adat, because I find that it is insulting to the bride, privileges materialist and patriarchal values, does not have a strong Islamic basis and makes marriage difficult and burdensome.

10 comments:

HaYsIa said...

i kind of agree, i have had a friend that lamented sadly that she did not even get to hear what was going on because she was all hidden in the room. currently im working towards something less traditional but of course it has to be with the elder's approval =p

Isty said...

Hmm it's not entirely true that the difference between marrying under the ROM and ROMM is only that of custom, with respect to the solemnisation ceremony. If you marry under the ROMM, you are governed by Muslim law (to the limited extent that it applies and is enforceable in Singapore). If you marry under the ROM, both you and your spouse are governed by civil law. There may also be an issue (yet untested) of whether the marriage of two Muslims under civil law is valid (there is a provision in the Women's Charter which seems to suggest that it may be void). The differences between Muslim law and civil law play out strongly if you ever decide to get divorced - Muslim law tends to favour the wife to a greater extent when it comes to determining custody and splitting the matrimonial assets.

- isty

Sya said...

Isty - I trust your lawyer's comments! :D Here I'm merely pointing out that I find the spirit of marriage at ROM to be more Islamic in the sense that it appears mutual and balanced.

When I wrote this post I also had in mind the situations of Muslims who live in countries where everyone is governed by the same i.e. civil law.

You are right though, according to the Women's Charter Ch. 353 Muslims cannot marry at ROM, unless they declare themselves to be non-Muslim.(!)

In the end, I place this as a matter of choice - that a couple should be able to choose to be governed under a law that makes divorce easier or more difficult, and that favours the wife or makes things more equal between husband and wife with regards to custody and assets.

Sya said...

Aisyah - let me know if you can figure something out! Would be great to reinvent within limits.

xiaomei. said...

how timely! wanted to let you know that you're not alone in your thoughts! just yesterday i was drawing up the wedding programme with my mum. the groom had more prayers to do, (about 45 minutes) while the bride turns up for about 5min (before that she sits in the dressing room), gets her wedding clothes, returns ASAP just in time for the thali to be tied around her neck (the hindu symbol of marriage). i was like HUH, that's it? really? my mum kept repeating that the bride would have more prayers after both were man and wife. my question was, how about as an individual? she couldn't understand my point, such is the socialisation, and the answer 'that's just how it is'.

and i've realised that many things are simply passed down as accepted practices, with no thought to the social scenarios as to why they were done previously.

xx
anuja

Amirul Azam said...

By Islamic custom, there is a Sunnah prayer that the newly weds should perform. Upon their first prayer as a married couple, they will be able to experience what married couples do: they are a pair in Allah's eyes, and they will do everything in their lives as a pair.

The 'kiss' to nullify ablution is a custom, but some scholars have mentioned that ablution between husband and wife is only nullified when touching one another causes arousal.

Nice read, and all the above is more of sharing.

Sya said...

Nooj! We should do a comparative study.

Thanks for sharing Amirul! I'm all for the customs that married couples do together. And praying together is one of the most wonderful things, in my opinion.

Yup, you're right, it's because of how the scholars interpret the term 'lamastum' - to mean contact or touching of different natures. What you mention is the opinion of Maliki, and it makes sense to me lah, because it's not touching per se, but the consequences of that.

And God knows best (:

orange streaks said...

In Indonesian dramas or sinetrons, the couple is almost always portrayed sitting beside each other, though it seems the contract dialogue is still said only by the groom. (I can just imagine my mom watching that and tsk-tsking about how these indonesians 'asal boleh', haha.) Perhaps it has something to do with it being a somewhat religious ceremony and since it involves the kadi who is a respected religious figure and other men as witnesses, so having the (usually) heavily made-up bride sitting right smack in the middle of these men makes it a bit... awkward? So having her seated away from the men is perhaps more a gesture of reverence (is that the right word to use?) towards the kadi than anything else. Anyway, i'm with you on the hantaran and lavish gifts. I'd rather do away with the hantaran altogether, but I still have to appease my mom. So now I'm trying to convince her that since I'm going to fully bear the cost of the walimah without taking a single cent from her, the hantaran money should be solely for me, for us, to keep for things like furniture and appliances for our future home. And i'm not ruling out my helping my fiance, on the side (or under the table), to come up with the total amount. As for the gifts, I'm insisting on only the traditional stuff that carry a nice significance and we're going to use anyway like sejadah, telekong, Quran and a set of baju Melayu. I don't see a need for other things like bags and shoes or laptop, or handphone, or designer toiletries as I can well-afford them myself anyway.

orange streaks said...

And yes it's me, Zakiah! Hahah.. Anyway in discussions with my sister about custom vs what is essentially needed for marriage to take place, my take is, while we might feel a little frustrated that we need to appease our parents now, it is fully within our rights and power to choose not to impose such cultural expectations on our own children in the future. There's hope yet to change such customs if there's more of us with the same mindset. Bulat air oleh pembuluh, bulat kata oleh muafakat. :)

Sya said...

Based on discussions with several Indonesian friends, it seems that our marriage seating arrangement is like how the Padang (but not most other parts of Indonesia) do it.

Well, you can always have 4 female witnesses instead. Or 1 male and 2 female - that would balance things out - if you're not too hung up on segregation (another blog post altogether!).

I like how we can always still make changes, within the limits - like how you choose the kind of hantaran instead of doing away with it altogether.

Can't wait to not do this with my kids though. (:

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