Sunday, November 18, 2012

Deconstructing pre-marriage advice for Muslim couples

My unofficial marriage contract certifies that my husband and I went through a “marriage ceremony peformed under Islamic rites”, and that he had agreed to certain “special conditions” otherwise known as ta’aliq. We didn’t pay much attention to the conditions provided to us by the kadi (judge) from the syariah court, dismissing it as a formality.

Last week, an organisation dedicated to converts in Singapore was accused of teaching future couples to hit their wives if they refuse to have sex. Both the converts organisation and another women's organisation mentioned in the article have since refuted these claims (here and here). It turns out that the claims were based on only the experience of the writer, and not of other course participants.

I knew this organisation and had gone there often for talks and seminars. My husband also did his formal conversion there, despite having to endure a lecturer who staunchly defended against claims of Muslim terrorism that my "Western" husband did not make, and taught us that among other things, that "Islam is the true religion because it's not named after a person" (unlike Christianity or Buddhism). I could imagine such a situation as described by the writer as actually happening, because of the lack of teaching regulations there.

What was more interesting however, were the responses from Singaporean Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds.

Essentially, the discussion centered around the difference of Muslim marriages from "Western", "secular" or "civil" ones because the former contains elements of spirituality. Therefore, Muslim marriage courses are preferable to secular ones because they teach couples the "rights of husbands and wives in the eyes of Islam". Following the logic that a Muslim husband is a pious head of the household, with the right to correct the mistakes of other members of his household, any beating is never meant to be violent, but a mere "expression of disapproval".

In my own my state-approved pre-marriage course, a hadith was provided as guidance to the Muslim husband to "neither hit her on her face nor use impolite language" as part of his obligation to treat his wife "with kindness and equity". In the discussion, a young woman even pointed out that it's not even supposed to be a "beating", but merely a "light tap, like a handkerchief", and therefore not degrading or a demonstration of power. No, not at all.

These were educated, middle class Muslim women and men who chose their own marriage partners and spent many years getting to know them before marrying. I could say with some certainty that they might never experience domestic violence, but they still defended the dominant interpretation of the verse. Taking "beating" as a given, they tried to soften the potential blow by explaining the severity of the blow, where it could be done, and with what. In a way, they tried to speak on behalf of Muslim women who have been abused and had their abuse justified by religious reasons (occurs in many possible ways;see here).

While the discussion revolved around the issue of difference and the accuracy of translating the verse in question (Quran 4:34) as "beating", the underlying issue of the refusal of sex was not addressed. Muslim women could not refuse sex without intangible (whether heavenly curse or a light tap) or tangible consequences.

In my course, I was taught that as a Muslim wife, giving "free sexual access at all lawful times" (in addition to "submission to husband" and "obedience") was a condition to receive financial maintenance (nafkah). She could not receive maintenance if she was physically absent from the home without her husband's permission (for reasons such as traveling or going for haj). She could not refuse sexual intercourse without "angels cursing her until morning", even when her husband was approaching her because he was "charmed by (another) woman". These notions squarely avoid women's sexual agency and place the burden of domestic harmony on women -- the main vision of  the Obedient Wives' Club in neighbouring Malaysia.

During my pre-marriage course, I was warned as a Muslim wife to uphold my husband's "conjugal rights", but I was assumed to have no sexual needs or agency. The sex education provided by the elderly male heterosexual lecturer only consisted of a rapid and awkward speeding through of the restrictions of the 'when' and 'how' of sexual intercourse from only the husband's perspective. Sadly, the sexual agency of Muslim women remains virtually non-existent in the consciousness of Singaporean Muslims. Arguably, this is also the case of Muslims in general, which as Eren has rightly pointed out, explains the popularity of writing that explores Muslim women's love lives.

The contradiction between the pre-marriage advice I received, and my own vision of marriage as an uplifting spiritual union reveals the tension between what we are taught to be a "properly Muslim" marriage and the reality of the diverse lives we lead. We read online articles with titles containing "Muslim wife" or "Muslim husband" (examples here and here) which cater to hypothetical couples who have never interacted with each other (or perhaps not even any member of the opposite gender) before marriage.

We are expected to have our Muslim and gender identities supersede and disregard all other identities like ethnicity, class or age. There is scant advice for intercultural couples, or wives who earn more and/or are older than their husbands. This implies that couples should be of the same ethnic background, or that ethnicity never matters when one is truly Muslim, and that the husband is always wealthier and/or is older than the wife.

The gendered roles and rules of behaviour in the form of "rights" and "obligations" place fixed expectations on each spouse and leave no room for individual circumstances and personality, and instead create possibilities for resentment. But in the highly institutionalised practice of Islam in Singapore, due to the semi-government regulation of Muslims, deviations from the legal Islamic standard on what constitutes a Muslim marriage, the roles of the husband and the wife, and assumptions on which partner possesses sexual agency, is seen to be deviant and unIslamic.

For example, even though Muslim couples are free to make a marriage contract and place any conditions in it, in practice all Muslim marriage contracts in Singapore include wifely "obedience" (and all its assumptions about gender roles and sexual agency) as a condition for financial maintenance.

During my third marriage* in the presence of a judge from the Singapore syariah court, my husband was required to read this out loud:
"On every occasion that I fail to maintain my wife whereas she is obedient to me... and my wife complains to the Syariah Court, and if her complaint is proved, then she is divorced by one talak."
I had heard this read out so many times, at so many weddings, for so many years, that I never thought twice about it. But now I think it carries too many implications.

And it's not something I want for my own marriage. Even though marriage, and especially Islamic marriages, are highly structured and legalised in Singapore, the syariah laws are not perfect (not to mention influenced by colonial British law) and don’t fit my vision of marriage. I want my husband and I to be able to think for ourselves, and for our own situation, knowing that this will change materially and ideologically over time.
* The dual marriage system and social norms in Singapore mean that there is only one kind of valid marriage for Muslims: marriage in the Syariah Court. This meant that although I had already married twice: once at home with all the Islamic requirements, and a second time in a Dutch civil court for a marriage certificate, I had to marry a third time in the presence of a judge from the syariah court, who produced a legally non-binding letter that certified that I had indeed married Islamically.

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

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