The story of my friend Amina highlights the need for a modern Islamic marriage contract. But the Muslim Council of Britain has chickened out.
Guardian Comment is free
20 August 2008
I used to work with a British-Asian woman from Cambridge. At first sight, she was as free and as liberated as any of her contemporaries at university but as time went by, she seemed increasingly depressed, spending all of her lunch breaks in long telephone conversations, often returning in tears.
Amina (not her real name) had fallen in love with an Asian Muslim man. She was also Muslim and they both came from a similar ethnic background in Pakistan. Like so many of their generation, they were caught between Britain and Pakistan, between their parents and themselves. Amina’s father refused to consent to her marriage and, as a Muslim daughter, she needed him as a “wali” or guardian to oversee her marriage. The local imam refused to conduct the ceremony without her father’s consent and the presence of two male Muslim witnesses.
When I met Amina she was still in love with this man but her father insisted she marry her cousin from Pakistan, who happened, rather conveniently, to be visiting England. Her father also had a heart condition and used his illness to emotionally blackmail her. Eventually Amina gave way. She sacrificed love to south Asian culture and married Mr Pakistan.
White, liberal eyes reading this article will be astounded to know these things happen in Britain. I am sorry, but they do. And it gets worse.
Amina was repeatedly raped by Mr Pakistan, but her mother told her that a Muslim man has such rights over his wife, and in Islam there is no such thing as marital rape.
I wanted to help Amina. I suggested she divorce her husband and marry her true love but she told me her husband would kill her if she even mentioned divorce. Eventually, she risked everything and escaped to a women’s refuge. When she asked for a divorce her husband refused and was supported in this by the Islamic Shariah Council, a powerful all-male outfit controlling women’s lives.
In the light of Amina’s struggle, I was pleased to read Samia Rahman’s article on Cif about a new Muslim marriage contract pioneered by the Muslim Institute and endorsed, much to my surprise, by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the men who supported Amina’s husband: the Islamic Shariah Council.
Launching it at a meeting of the City Circle, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui highlighted other cases of marital abuse among Britain’s Muslims Amina was not alone.
The new Muslim marriage contract sought to update and develop fiqh, or Muslim personal jurisprudence, by shifting the power balance in a marriage to empower women to trigger divorce, feel safe from rape or abuse, prevent husbands from taking second wives, and set up accommodation separated from a husband’s parents.
All common sense, one would have thought. It went further. Witnesses at wedding ceremonies could be women and even non-Muslim, since the Qur’an is gender and faith neutral on this issue. And a Muslim woman does not need a wali, or male guardian (based on Hanafi school of Islamic law, to which the majority of Britain’s Muslims adhere).
Had Amina and her husband signed this contract, she would have had every right to escape her miserable marriage, or even marry her first love. For those who need scriptural justification for every step of their life, the Muslim scholars behind this contract provided evidence and shariah-based arguments.
It was all too good to be true. Misogynist, Saudi-trained clerics don’t simply stand by and watch their last grip over Muslim family life slip away so easily. First, as expected, came an Arab male cleric with extreme Wahhabi leanings, denouncing the contract as kufr, or non-belief. His rant can be watched on YouTube.
Last Friday, after initially endorsing the new contract, the MCB back-tracked and issued a statement to “clarify” is position. It spoke of “misinterpretation of shariah by those who the MCB had trusted to take the lead” and said: “The MCB rejects the misguided and incorrect assertions made by and ascribed to the Muslim Institute.”
This MCB policy is as retrogressive and insular as its previous decision to boycott attending Holocaust Memorial Day. Then, it was the City Circle that pioneered an alternative platform for Muslims to remember the Holocaust, and again, the City Circle is ahead of the MCB in advocating an alternative reading of scripture to facilitate Muslim female power.
And in typical MCB male arrogance, they dismiss the contract and promise to issue their own after “due consultation” with their “affiliates and ulema [religious scholars]”. Why? The shariah is a diverse body of law, can’t the MCB accept another interpretation? How dare they talk of “misinterpretation”? And why consult only clerics and affiliates, and leave out women and human rights groups?
The MCB leadership should be ashamed of itself: ashamed for not having the balls to stand up for Muslim women, and ashamed for bowing to extremist, literalist pressure.
When young Muslim women like Amina and thousands of others cannot trust MCB leaders to stand firm in support of the new Muslim marriage contract, its leaders should take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves: why do we always get it so terribly wrong?