The Familial Dimension of Muslim Women: Survey of Middle Eastern History- Long Research Essay

The Familial Dimension of Muslim Women: Survey of Middle Eastern History- Long Research Essay

To much of the Western world, Middle Eastern society may seem very backward. This is rightfully so in the eyes of the United States, for example, whose culture is much different from theirs. Keeping this in mind, many stereotypes have been developed as a result. For example, Muslim women (esp. those residing in the United States) tend to be thought of as second-class citizens in terms of their rights, privileges, roles, and status. Where the developers of these stereotypes are a bit off is in how they are developed with little or no understanding of the Muslim culture. This essay seeks to, with any luck, quell some of those stereotypes and myths. Before we enter the world of Muslim women, one thing must be understood and proven. The rights of Muslim women in the familial dimension are equal to that of men but not their roles and statuses are a bit different in three main ways.

The Muslim definition of marriage is based on its Arabic word, nikah, meaning, “contract.” The seriousness of this covenant is the same term, mithaqun ghalithun, used for the agreement made between Allah and the Prophet before granting him the responsibility of the Prophethood. As serious as this union may be, women’s rights and privileges are very much protected, but as wives they also have some restrictions, as well. Some of these rights are very much the same as those found in the Untied States. These rights include the mahr (dowry), spending, accommodation, not being harmed in any way, and not being confined to household duties (in other words, having any job they want). The mahr is the money that the wife is entitled from her husband when the marriage contract is completed. Although it is not an essential part of the marriage contract, it demonstrates the seriousness and importance of it, as it is a token of respect and honor to the woman. Scholars agree that it is obligatory for husbands to spend money on their wives if the wife makes herself available to her husband. The reason spending is obligatory is because the wife is only available to her husband, and not allowed to leave the home without the permission of the husband. In return for spending and providing for her, his wife, a Muslim can expect that she (in return) make herself available to him for his pleasure. Lastly, the third financial right that Muslim wives carry is accommodation. This simply means that her husband should prepare for her accommodation according to his means and ability.

Another set of rights pertains to non-financial matters. These include not being harmed by their husband, the right to have any occupation they want, and the right to be supported. Not being harmed is an obvious form of protection, while the other two take some explanation. Having the right to have any occupation she wants may also sound fundamental in nature, but not many married Muslim women are a part of the workforce. Since the husband has no right to expect her to support herself, let alone support his children or him, some women simply choose not to work. On the other hand, if she does contribute to the household income, this is regarded as a charitable deed on her part. Going along with these rights, the husband expects that there are three simple requirements that the wife is to fulfill. They are expected to be fully obedient to their husband, refuse the admittance of anyone that the husband dislikes, and not leave the house without her husband’s permission. Although the typical Muslim marriage arrangement may seem one-sided, in that the male is the only one to benefit, there are many decisions that are made jointly between man and woman. In theory, the art of decision making and negotiating should leave both parties with a sense of satisfaction. However, should the male feel an injustice has been brought upon him, there is a possible solution to this. An action he may take is to either get a divorce or get another wife. This introduces a topic mostly related to Islamic culture: polygamy.

Polygamy is commonly found in Middle Eastern Muslim communities. Although Judaism and Christianity claim to be fully monogamous, there are many inconsistencies within this claim. In the United States, mate swappers are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands (Abdalati, 1982, 164). Also, it’s interesting to examine the high correlation between strict formal monogamy and the frequency of prostitution, homosexuality, illegitimacy, infidelity, and general sexual laxity that exists in the United States. (Abdalati, 1982, 164) The perception of polygamy, from other countries, is based partly on movies, cheap paperbacks, and irresponsible behavior of certain Muslims. (Abdalati, 1982, 165) Some critics of polygamy need to keep in mind that when Muhammad represented Islam, polygamy was common and deeply rooted in their society. (Abdalati, 1982, 165) They followed the Quranic quote of:

“If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans (whom you marry or whose mothers you take as wives for you), marry women of your choice, two or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess. That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice.”

After reading a quote like this, anyone familiar with Middle Eastern history is probably curious about Muhammad’s polygamy. For many Muslims, the fact that Muhammad had nine different wives does not strike a dissonant chord, knowing both Muhammad’s character and the circumstances under his marriages were conducted. First of all, Muhammad never even touched a woman until he was twenty-five years old and married. His first marriage was to Lady Khadijah; an old, twice-widowed woman who was fifteen years older than he. She initiated the contract, and he accepted this; despite the age difference and other possible concerns. At the time he could have quite easily found more attractive women and had a younger wife, if he were passionate or after things physical. (Abdalati, 1982, 175) With Khadijah alone, he lived until he was over fifty years old, and through her, all of his children were born with the exception Ibraheem. All nine wives that he took throughout his life were all widows or divorced with the exception of Aishah. Surprisingly none of these widowed or divorced wives were known for their charm or beauty. Muhammad lived a very simple life, despite his large presence in the Muslim community but some of his marriages had specific reasons behind them. In order to do the most he could for Islam, and attempt to eliminate discrimination between ethnicities, Muhammad made some sacrifices through marriage. The Prophet contracted some of his marriages for sociopolitical and legislative reasons as well. For instance, it was through Juwairiah that he gained support for Islam by establishing a relationship with Bani al-Mustaliq and other tribes. Also, with Safiyah’s help, he neutralized a large number of hostile Jews of Arabia. As evidenced, there are definite circumstances that go along with most of the Prophet’s marriages. For any Muslim, there was no doubt that Muhammad had the highest moral standards of anyone they knew. As a result, no one thought twice about these marriages. To non-Muslims, the concept may be hard to grasp, but the information given hopefully presents and hopes to explain the Muslim point of view.

Polygamy is realistic and, at the same time, practical. This is why Muslim society permits it. There are a variety of reasons why polygamy is permitted, the first being that women outnumber men in some regions. The interpretation is that, if marriage were restricted to one wife, many women would without husbands. The implications of this are moral, sentimental, social, and emotional. Every normal woman (regardless of race, class, ethnicity, etc.) desires a home and a family of her own. At the same time, that woman needs someone to care for her and vice versa. When they cannot obtain any of this, they never seem to fail in finding other channels, although risky and temporary. Quite simply, very few women can do without the permanent and assured companionship of men.

The second reason that polygamy exists is because not all women are capable of having children. To have a family and contribute to society are fundamental wishes. In a difficult situation like this, a husband is presented with three alternatives: forget it and suppress the desire for children, divorce his wife through a course of separation or adultery, or adopt children and give them his name. The thing is: none of these options jive with Islamic views on life. Islam does not encourage or approve suppression of anyone’s legitimate desires or natural aspirations. (Abdalati, 1982, 170) It seeks to help people fill those voids in their lives in a decent, legal manner.

The third and final reason why polygamy exists is not all spouses fulfill their marital obligations. A spouse may simply fail to be pleasant to him or her. Their personalities may clash after a while, even though they’d thought otherwise before they tied the knot. Worse yet, the spouse may not be able to give the husband the attention and affection he deserves and desires. Although this may not be their fault, they or the husband may do a lot of traveling for their job and not be around as much as he or she would like to be. It is in circumstances like these that men can sometimes enter a pitfall of immorality: prostitutes, mistresses, etc. in order to satisfy themselves. So, to save a man from his own self and to protect the women involved (whether she is the wife or secret friend) against unnecessary complications, and to maintain moral integrity, Islam has allowed polygamy with the reservations and conditions mentioned. But, it is only to be used as an emergency measure. Men and women who find themselves in a desperate (or just plain unhappy) state may resort to this solution. Nevertheless, if there is fear for injustice or harm to either partner, monogamy should be the rule.

Divorce is allowed in Islamic society, but it is strongly looked down upon. In fact, both the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions underscore its seriousness. (Esposito, 2002, 143) The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that, of all things, “divorce is the most abominable with God,” and an authoritative legal manual describes divorce as “a dangerous and disapproved procedure as it dissolves marriage.” (Esposito, 2002, 143) During the time of Muhammad, men could divorce at any time. They could basically just get up and leave. After a while, though, the Qur’an and Islamic law introduced guidelines. These guidelines strove to limit a man’s grounds for divorce and help women establish a right to a judicial divorce. (Esposito, 2002, 144) For example, a husband was required by law to pronounce, “I divorce you,” three times, once each successive month for three months to obtain a divorce. (Esposito, 2002, 144) Of the reforms that followed the new guidelines, three stick out. A minimum age became a requirement for marriage, men were required to obtain permission from a court to initiate a divorce, and women’s grounds for obtaining a divorce were expanded. Unfortunately, for Muslim women, the penalties for not following these rules were rather small. And, since few governments were willing to replace Islamic law and be abused of going against the shariah, many rule-breakers got away almost scot-free. For instance, if a man took another wife, his second marriage would be illegal and his children illegitimate to the court system, but not invalid in the eyes of God. However, gender equality has gained a lot of momentum over the years and the growth of that momentum has increased pressure for substantive reform in many Muslim societies. At this point one may be curious as to what happens in terms of inheritance.

The general rule for inheritance is that the female share is half the male's except the cases where the mother receives equal share to that of the father. Since the topic of inheritance is a vast one, with an enormous amount of details (Qur’an 4:7,11,12,176), only the general rule will be discussed. This rule may seem unfair, but keep in mind that Muslim women have much less financial responsibility in the household than the men. As mentioned before, wives are not required to have a job outside of the home. Thus, any income that they have is kept for their own spending, except for what they offer their husbands. The husband must also provide a marriage gift. This gift becomes the wife’s exclusive property and remains hers if they later divorce one another. In contrast, the bride is not required to present her husband with any gifts. Consequently, the husband is responsible for maintaining his wife and children. Oddly enough, the wife is not obliged to reciprocate this duty. One has to keep in mind that Islam passionately holds family life to be of the utmost importance. It strongly encourages youth to get married, discourages divorce, and does not regard celibacy as a virtue. (Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, para. 6) For this reason family life is the norm of Islamic society, while single life is a rare exception. In fact, almost all women and men old enough to marry are married. With this in mind, one would infer that Muslim men generally have a greater financial burden than Muslim women. Therefore, inheritance rules are meant to offset this imbalance. Upon examination of the rights and rules of Muslim women, one can conclude that Islam treats women fairly and generously in light of the familial dimension. Keeping this in mind, one particular heavily debated issue serves as one of the hardest decisions for women to make.

Most Muslim leaders oppose birth control, but in the twenty-first century the opinion has changed a bit. Traditionally, Islam encouraged married couples to have large families in order to enlarge and strengthen the Muslim community to which they belonged. Remember that Islam was not the dominant religion in the Middle East for a long, long time. The Qur’an does not address family planning measures but a few hadith mention coitus interruptus. In fact, the Qur’an also uses the Arabic word "Hisn", suggesting "fortress" for marriage. Thus, marriage is considered the fortress of chastity. Other religious scholars, especially the ulama, oppose birth control because it goes against the will of God in their eyes. Moreover, by limiting the number of children, they are thought to be limiting and weakening the size of the Muslim community. Also, these same scholars think that the use of birth control will spawn premarital sex and adultery. Contrarily, the majority of the ulama today allow contraception as long as both the husband and wife agree upon it. As with most Muslim ideas and scripture, this issue, as with nearly every other, has a wide range of opinion. Time has told us that without at least minimal modernization, order is hard to establish.

Muslim women may seem very tied down with restriction, but they possess more freedom than it seems. Considering the fact that women don’t have very much responsibility in family life (especially if they don’t work), the restrictions they have are basically the common paranoia of any husband. Think of one the restrictions this way: As a married man sitting at home, wouldn’t you like to where your wife is going and have an estimate of when she will be returning? Trust items like this should be commonplace, but the difference between the Middle East and the West is that Middle Eastern families put more emphasis on piety than Americans do and generally expect more out of people. Americans tend to be a bit paranoid, although sometimes reasonably, and have a harder time instilling trust in other people. This generalization does not mean that one is better than the other, but that the reasoning behind some of the Islamic law is based simply on social customs, norms, and their way of life. To sum it all up, I would hope that at least some of the stereotypes and myths about the family life of Muslim women have been cleared up and more clearly understood and also hope that the initials posed have been answered.