In response to the recent news about a possible Singaporean branch of the Obedient Wives Club, Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib has written an interesting article on competing visions of marriage in Islam. In it he discusses their implications for various issues including marital rape. The first vision he discusses is traditionalist:
…marriage is primarily seen not as a fulfillment of mutual love and respect, but as a set of duties and obligations. The man, as the absolute leader of the family, is entitled to absolute obedience from the woman. Any form of denying or subverting the authority of the husband may constitute nushuz (‘rebellion’).
This, inadvertently, includes the authority and right for men to demand sex, even if she refuses.
Such writings, which advocate the absolute submission of wives, are by no means rare. They form part of the episteme of traditionalist Islam. The popularity of books like Tohfa-e-Doulhan (Gift For The Bride), sold in local bookstores, obviously latches on to this dominant orientation as much as it seeks to entrench patriarchy through religious discourse. This is the crisis of traditionalist thought in Muslim jurisprudence.
He contrasts this to the views of many thinkers among Muslims all over the world, who understand Islam to promote an “egalitarian message”:
A notable Muslim jurist, Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, brilliantly dissected such problems in contemporary Muslim discourse on gender in his book, Speaking In God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority & Women (2001).
Scholars like him have identified the prevalence of the language of ‘obedience’ as an example of how the Muslims’ religious discourse on gender is in serious need of reform. This is a task that has been undertaken by contemporary reformists such as Ziba Mir Hosseini (Iran), Asma Barlas (USA), Riffat Hassan (Pakistan), Farid Esack (South Africa), Asghar Ali Engineer (India), KH. Hussein Muhammad (Indonesia), Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco) and countless others.
In their progressive interpretation of Islam, a woman’s ‘obedience’ is owed directly to God as a principle of tawheed (monotheism), and not via ‘obedience’ to the male/husband.
They also highlighted that marriage is based on the equality of men and women, and, as specified in the Qur’an, “so that you may dwell in tranquility” and develop “deep feelings of love and mercy” (Q.30:21). Furthermore, roles and responsibilities are to be negotiated in mutual trust and respect, and are not pre-determined by God.
What is important is that their vision is grounded in the same sacred sources of the Qur’an and Hadith (prophetic traditions). Unfortunately, these perspectives have often been neglected and sometimes outright rejected in the name of an ossified and fossilised ‘Islam’.
The recent sensational news about the formation of the OWC provides an opportunity to open up discussion about one of the most taboo topics in public discourse – sex in marital life.
For reform-minded gender activists, this is the time to seize the moment and correct centuries-old assumptions about gender roles and relations – from issues of reproductive rights, inheritance law to marital rape.
It is also an opportunity to highlight the limits of traditionalist thought in properly diagnosing social issues and problems. For Muslims in particular, it is time for critical self-reflection, for reclaiming the egalitarian message of Islam, and for repositioning women as equally dignified partners in all spheres of life, marital relations included. It is time for a new gender discourse to take shape in the community.
It is also worth noting the statement of Muis (dated 17 June 2011) in response to the Obedient Wives Club (emphasis added by us):
Muis disagrees with the basis or objectives of the aforementioned Club as reported by the media.
The Club’s view that a satisfying sex life is the main solution to solving marital and social problems in the community is one that is myopic, and does not accurately portray the complexity of the problems faced by married couples. Such simplistic view is in fact demeaning to women and the institution of marriage and family which are held in high esteem in Islam.
[...] Happiness in a marriage goes beyond receiving sexual fulfillment from one’s wife. The Prophet himself (Peace be upon him) taught Muslims to engage in spousal sexual relations in a manner that is full of love and respect towards each other. This is because sexual relations are a form of ibadah (blessed deed in Islam) which requires consent and willingness from both parties.
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