Patriarchal marriage and “responsibility”

The Muslim marriages that I and my convert friends entered into were patriarchal. Meaning, the husband was supposed to be the “head of the household,” while the wife was supposed to be obedient.

But most of the interpretations of the Qur’an and of Islamic law that we encountered when we first converted did not (and would never have) used the word “patriarchal” to describe their vision of the “ideal” Muslim marriage. Nor did they put much stress on the duty of the wife to obey the husband. Instead, they focused on the idea that the family (supposedly, like every other social institution) needs a leader, or it will collapse. So therefore, the family needs someone who will take on the responsibility of casting the deciding vote in cases where the husband and wife cannot agree. They also talked about how women and children need to be protected and provided with the necessities of life, so men (again) have been given the responsibility to do this, which is why it is “only fair” that the husband rather than the wife is the head of the household.

This vision of how a Muslim marriage “should” work was often presented to us as a really sweet deal for women—a deal that feminists would envy, if only they understood Islam. Men (we were told) had been given this heavy responsibility by God, but women had everything given to them. Guaranteed provision for life, protection from the dangers of the outside world as well as the hardships of the workplace, freedom from the responsibility of having to make major decisions on behalf of the family… what more could any woman want??

What we didn’t realize is that in reality (and also, in Islamic law…), responsibility and power go hand in hand. What was marketed to us as freedom from responsibility ended up meaning lots of responsibilities for wives and mothers, but little actual power or resources to deal with them. And, lots of blame for failing to live up to idealized standards of “good” wife- and motherhood.

Family structure was discussed in different ways, depending on who the intended audience was, as well as what ideas the speaker or writer was trying to convince his audience to see as “true Islam.”It was all rather confusing for converts. There were at least five discourses on this question, which sometimes intersected, sometimes contradicted, and sometimes mystified what was actually going on:

(1) The “mercy to women” discourse. The idea that the man is the head of the household was presented as God’s “mercy” to women, because we were being freed from this responsibility. Muslim marriage was said to be a “sheltering peace” for women, in which women would be taken care of, and their rights always respected.

(2) The “biology as destiny” discourse. The argument was made as well that these roles (man as head of the household, woman as obedient wife) are in accordance with “men’s and women’s (biological) natures.” So, men are supposedly more rational and able to control their emotions, while women are supposedly less rational, more emotional, and more nurturing. Because women menstruate, get pregnant, breast-feed, and go through menopause, they are subject to all sorts of hormonal fluctuations that affect their emotions, predispose them to make impulsive (i.e. bad) decisions, make it difficult for them to concentrate, and make them less reliable. Therefore, women can’t manage the responsibility of heading a household—and the few women who might be able to handle it are rare exceptions to the rule. Far more likely (we were given to understand) is that a woman who tries to head a household is an emasculating nag who has lost her god-given femininity and tried to become something that she never can be—a man—and of course fails.

(3) The “society will collapse” discourse. It was also claimed that this is simply the way that families have always been—that the husband has been the head of the household. Or, that in societies where women resisted that model of the family, that the whole society ended up falling apart. Some conservative pamphleteers claimed that this is what brought down the ancient Romans (!?), and supposedly, this is what will end up destroying America. The claim was also made by some that men “naturally” want to lead and protect their wives and children, and that if they are denied this role, then most men won’t find it worth their while to marry and stick around the women they impregnate long enough to take responsibility for their children. So, women who want egalitarian marriages are basically digging their own graves—they’ll end up single and alone—and selfishly depriving their children of fathers. And, such women are simply delusional, because they don’t understand “human nature”—and they fail to realize that they are bringing about the collapse of society.

(4) The “white emasculator” discourse. White North American women are supposedly especially given to emasculating their husbands. And, white European and American colonizers (and neo-colonizers) always sought (and still seek) to emasculate brown and black men. Therefore, when white North American women marry immigrant Muslim men, and don’t submit wholeheartedly to the notion that the man is the head of the household, then they are not only doing what white women usually do (emasculate their husbands), but they are doing what colonizers do, whether they know it or not. (So, therefore, brown or black women who want a more equal marriage have been contaminated by white women, or they also have been conned into doing the colonizers’ bidding….)

(5) The “God commands it” discourse. This is the “fine print,” so to speak. All those terrifying hadiths about how God won’t hear the prayers of the disobedient wife, or how most women will be in hell because they aren’t grateful enough to their husbands, or how the angels curse the wife who refuses her husband sex. As well as the hadiths saying that a wife who prays, fasts, gives charity and obeys her husband will enter any door of paradise that she likes (implying that disobedient wives won’t get to paradise). And of course, the hadith saying that even if a man’s body were covered in sores oozing puss, and his wife were to clean all the sores with her tongue, that she would not have come close to fulfilling her responsibility to serve and obey her husband. As well as the hadith saying that if any person would be commanded by God to bow down before another, it would be the wife who would be told to bow down before her husband.

And not only the hadiths, but the law. According to Islamic law, a disobedient wife loses her right to support—to food, shelter, clothing, and all other necessities of life—from her husband. While some people might read these terrifying hadiths as metaphorical (and some apologists encourage women to do that), this legal provision brings home just how serious the issue of a wife’s obedience to her husband is. Serious in the eyes of God, and of the community. Disobedience has legal consequences.

Legal scholars do stipulate that a wife should not obey her husband if he commands her to do something sinful. For example, if a man were to tell his wife not to perform her five times daily obligatory prayers. Or if he were to tell her not to wear hijab. Those are clear-cut situations. The reality, however, is that often what is “sinful” comes down to interpretation, so it is much less clear-cut if a man is commanding his wife to “sin” or not. In such cases, the wife is left with a burden of guilt whatever she decides to do—even if she tries to avoid a decision by not taking a stand.

God thinks that you deserve to starve if  you aren’t obedient. We internalized that message. At the same time, though, we did often attempt to “bargain” with patriarchy in different ways, by trying to set some limits on the scope of our husbands’ abilities to tell us what to do. A few women tried Islamic marriage contracts. But more common was carefully shaping the flow of information. What a man didn’t know—or didn’t know until it was too late—can’t hurt him, right?

But that sort of petty manipulation in the end didn’t really affect the balance of power. The “responsibility” to provide for the family meant that the man controlled the resources available, even if (like my ex) he left it to his wife to actually pay the bills and buy the groceries. So, when he decided to open a second bank account and not to give me any access to it, there was nothing I could do.  Even though we were living in poverty.

The “responsibility” for leading the family meant that the man could unilaterally decide that his wife wasn’t allowed to work. Or, that he would divorce his wife, even if she didn’t want to be divorced. Or, that he would practice polygamy. In otherwords, the wife’s standard of living could change at the drop of a hat, along with that of any children she had. And, her ability to plan for the future (or ensure that she wouldn’t be living in abject poverty in her old age)  could be held hostage to whatever her husband might decide to do.

But interestingly enough, when things didn’t go according to the ideal, and when wives ended up in difficult situations because of the ways that their husbands had exercised their “responsibilities” of leadership and provision, then it was not the husbands who usually got the lion’s share of the blame from the community. It was the wives. More on that next time.

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  1. #1 by /Anon on July 3, 2012 - 2:07 pm

    Do you remember having problems with discourse number five at the time?

    My own feeling is that people like Jamal Badawi aren’t being disingenuous when they say that stuff about marriage, because they probably find number five problematic themselves. What do you think?

    • #2 by xcwn on July 5, 2012 - 12:48 pm

      At first, we weren’t exposed much to discourse number five, aside from the general idea that this is a divinely designed model for the family. And when we did encounter discourse number five, it sounded so different from discourse number one that we didn’t know what to do with it.
      I don’t know what people like Jamal Badawi were thinking at the time. I doubt that they really thought the whole issue through, though. As far as they were concerned, the “mercy to women” discourse made Islamic ideas about the family sound “rational” and “modern”, which was good for da’wah. And they themselves firmly believed that Islam is the best way of life, and that the Muslim societies they came from were morally superior to “the West” (or at least, could be if they “followed Islam properly”). As far as discourse number five, they probably would have questioned the authenticity of some of the hadiths, but not others.

  2. #3 by almostclever on July 7, 2012 - 11:14 pm

    I LOVE your break down of all of this.

  1. Worthwhile Reads: Patriarchy is all the same

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