Posts Tagged power

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.

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