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Challenging Male Authority In Muslim Contexts: What Can We Learn From The Recent Report By Musawah?

By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

16 February 2017

Musawah (Arabic for Equality) is a Global Movement for Equality in Muslim Family NGO. It was launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. In its very recent report of global dimensions conducted by the NGO Musawah once again confirmed what was well known both among academics and grass roots activists   who work on gender issues in Islam. Namely, the juristic concepts of male authority inherent to (neo)-classical articulations of Islamic law known as Qiwama and Wilaya have, in most contexts, lost their rationale and often do a lot of harm to both Muslim women and men and indeed all those affected by them.

Briefly and generally speaking, in neo-classical articulations of Islamic law men as husbands and/or fathers as a category are given authority, asymmetrical and privileged  rights over many aspects of their female folk ( e.g. wives and daughters) including unilateral right to divorce ( Talaq) , custody over children , unilateral right to polygamy, right to marry off minors ( usually girls-marriage to girl minors as young as  nine in places such as Saudi Arabia and Iran is still legal), nearly absolute sexual rights and various forms of disciplining (including the physical) on the basis of :

1.       Men’s responsibility to provide for their family economically

2.       Certain additional gender cosmologies pertaining to the nature of masculinity and femininity in the normative Muslim socio-political and legal order (for details please refer to this open access academic article)

The report frequently highlights the frequent and deep disconnect between the concrete realities of women and men in these Muslim contexts and the classical doctrines of male authority and the harmful consequences this disconnect brings to all affected.

The report entitled “ Women’s Stories ,Women’s Lives: Male Authority in Muslim contexts” brought together researchers and activists from Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, The Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria and The United Kingdom  who documented the experiences of fifty five Muslim women with male authority.

The report is part of Musawah’s Global Life Stories Project (GLSP) which is a central element in Musawah’s continuing, multidimensional research programs whose objective is to generate new egalitarian knowledge from within Muslim legal tradition.  The GLSP is complemented by a focus on the production of scholarly theoretical knowledge on the topic of male authority in Muslim contexts that has resulted in several edited volumes most recent of which is titled Men in Charge ? Written by prominent Muslim female and male scholars affiliated with Musawah. I attended one of the workshops in Jordan back in 2011/2012 and wrote an academic article on the theoretical efforts of one of its co-directors, Dr. Ziba Mir -Hosseini and her activism with Musawah. The article  can be accessed here .

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the findings of this report. Instead, I will focus on the major themes that are summarized under the heading “Women’s Experiences: A transnational Overview”.

The Major Themes:

The major themes fall under several categories that pertain to: i.) child marriage; ii.) Polygamy;  III.) Economic Gender Roles;  IV.)Domestic violence and sexual relations within marriage;  V.) Divorce and post-divorce rights;  VI.) Custody and guardianship of children after divorce

I.)      Child Marriage:

In relation to child marriage the report highlights the following trends:

1. Child marriage was often seen as solution to deal with poverty or as a means for creating /strengthening social relations. (p.139)

2. Often there was lack of full consultation with or obtaining of consent from the girls in addition to them being unaware of marriage arrangements. (p.140)

3. Once married girls became part of highly asymmetrical power relationships in the family, were highly vulnerable and were often abused or ill-treated by their husbands, co-wives or in laws. (p.142)

4. Child marriage often had the consequence of termination of girls’ education which had long lasting negative implications. (p.142)

5. Child marriage was in some cases not a result of the initiative of fathers only but also was either proposed, advocated for or at minimally supported by a woman such as the mother, step-mother, and sister. (p.143)

II.)      Economic Roles:

In relation to economic roles of genders the report’s main findings are as follows:

1. In all contexts women played important economic roles as economic providers not only for themselves but their children and beyond occupying a variety of low or high skill professions. In addition, women also did a lion’s share of unpaid domestic work. (P.144-145)

2. Most of the time women were kept under the control of their husbands and fathers despite the fact that these individuals failed in their duty to act as providers and protectors. (p.146)

3. Regardless of class of women and their economic role   many continued to think that men are /should be the heads of households. (p.146)

III. Polygamy:

In relation to polygamy the report’s findings include the following:

1.  Majority of women who became co-wives expressed feelings of surprise, hurt and powerlessness. (p.148)

2. Regardless if they were the first or subsequent wife, polygamous relationship was detrimental them. Polygamous husbands were unable to support the women and their children and were unable to extend equal treatment to all either on financial, emotional or time-based criteria. p.150

3. Minority of women chose to enter into a polygamous marriage mainly due to needing or desiring marriage   so that they could gain a level of protection or to become socially acceptable. 152.

IV.      Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence Relations within Marriage

With respect to domestic violence and sexual relations within marriage we learn from the report the following:

1. There was presence of various forms of physical abuse extending from minor arguments to frequent and severe beatings. These behaviours were considered in many cases as common and to be tolerated. Escaping violence was often not an option due to fear, stigma or sense of helplessness. p.154

2. Some women suffered verbal, emotional or psychological abuse, p.155

3. “Women were frequently victims of sexual abuse by their husbands in form of forcing sexual intercourse, demanding sexual obedience or withholding sexual relation. These were used by husbands as means of asserting control and dominance. Men were assumed to have greater sexual rights and women were “expected to be obedient and submissive”. p.157

V.)Divorce and Post-Divorce Rights

With reference to divorce and post-divorce rights the report points to the following:

1. The unilateral permission to divorce {Talaq} is granted to men in many contexts. This privilege, in turn, was also used to control women. Talaq also had the effect of sometimes leaving the women “in a state of uncertainty or without a formal record of thedivorce”.p.160

2. In cases when women wanted to initiate divorce proceedings, the process was often lengthy and difficult for two reasons: due to the nature of “procedural requirements in the courts or because their husbands tried to delay the process”. Moreover, women were often in need of third party assistance as to be divorced or had to give up their post-divorce rights in order to do so., p.160

3. In some cases it was relatively easy for women to obtain a divorce procedurally but sometimes with the consequence of having to relinquish certain post-divorce rights. Moreover, the divorce process affected the women emotionally negatively.,p.163.

Vi.)   Custody and Guardianship of Children after Divorce:

Finally, in relation to custody and guardianship of children after divorce the report highlights the following:

1. Mothers often had to relinquish some of their non-custody related, post-divorce rights in order to obtain custody of their children after divorce, p.164

2. Many women who did gain custody of their children were not the recipients of child support payments from the fathers and had to “work long hours and in difficult jobs in order to provide for themselves and their children”.,p.166

3. In the majority of cases the father or male relatives had custody of children. p.167

It is clearly evident from the finding of the report that the juristic constructs of Qiwama and Wilaya do not serve the interests of the majority of Muslim families and must be rethought. Some progress in this respect has been made as, for example, in the case of Morocco.   However, much resistance to reform in traditionalist Muslim centres of learning and as a result of deeply embedded cultural norms continues to exist. It is hoped that the efforts of Musawah and other similar organizations, both those on documenting the life stories like the report discussed in this article as well as those ever proliferating scholarly and theoretical in nature will speed up the efforts to make equality in Muslim family a reality for the future generations of Muslims, including my own young children. There is space for optimism in this respect.


Adis Duderija is lecturer in the study of Islam and society at Griffith University


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