By Iqbal Tamimi
According to Shari’ah’ law, Muslim women and men have the right to list down all their conditions on their marriage contracts, exactly as any two parties going into partnership in any field would do. Every woman has the right to annul her marriage if her husband breaches any of the conditions she listed on the marriage document. But the disappointing fact is, even though this is a God given right to women, the majority of Muslim men refuse to be part of it, and most Muslim women do not know about such right.
Most Muslim women who are educated enough and courageous enough insist on listing conditions such as not to relocate after marriage without the wife’s consent, the husband should not marry a second wife, that she keeps working after marriage or that she should be allowed to continue her education after marriage.
Alriyadh, the national Saudi newspaper published an interesting story on December, 18, 2008, about an unusual marriage condition requested by a Saudi woman at the court of the city of Qatif, where she demanded that her future husband should provide her with 3 personal computers as part of her Dowry, and that he should guarantee her a lifetime access to internet. The groom refused her request, claiming that “internet has bad influence on women and facilitates “virtual” mixing between men and women”. This incident indicates how important the internet has become in the life of Muslim women especially those who are isolated for social or health reasons. But this incident also shows that Internet flirting is a major concern for Saudi men who are living in a segregated society, even though they make the highest percentage of subscribers on dating websites in the Arab region.
This incident indicates that Saudi women are taking advantage of the transient stage between being under the guardianship of the father that will soon be transferred to the authority of the husband, to renegotiate their rights. Whatever conditions a woman lists on her marriage contract and were accepted by the groom, are considered legally binding and a personal gain of rights.
More Muslim women are resisting social pressures to accept traditional methods of solving their marital disputes as well, by insisting on resorting to the legal system that is not susceptible to traditional or tribal male pressures. But unfortunately, such progress has developed at a fast rate in the Middle East while Muslims of UK are still hanging on to their old cultural methods of solving their marital disputes, which does not reflect justice for women or protect their interests most of the time. Some people are still living in mental capsules where time has stopped at the date they left their home countries decades ago, probably running away from the same oppressive societies. Some argue that they prefer solving their social disputes using traditional mediating methods because they believe they are part of the Islamic law which is obviously do not offer equality to women because the texts of the Quran and Hadith are often subjected to individual interpretations that favour the position of men over women, and favours a hierarchical family model that values obedience, with the younger deferring to the older and women deferring to men. Consequently such interpretations reflect biases in society.
Things have improved for Muslim women in their home origins because of education, and believe it or not, as a consequence of “Western” sustained pressures calling for updating the legal systems to ensure better human rights practices. Yet in democracies like UK, Muslim women are forced to accept the mediation of the elders of communities which entails advising women to be patient and accept their husbands and other male family members abuse of rights, because part of their traditional education, claims that a patient woman who bears the cruelty and ill-manners of her husband will be rewarded by living an eternal life in paradise. This does not come as a surprise, because the mediation services are run by men and the victims are women who obviously feel embarrassed to talk about private details of their personal lives to men. Some feel even intimated by having to justify themselves to men of faith who keep preaching about the virtues of patience and women’s duties towards their husbands. The women carry the burden of responsibility towards keeping the family intact; they are made to feel guilty by their communities and the mediators if they sought divorce.
A swift comparison between Muslim women in UK and women in their home origins will better explain my point. In Yemen, a woman and a mother named Tawakul Karman, won a Peace Nobel Prize this year for her efforts, courage and leadership to fight an oppressive corrupt regime; she was leading men and women in peaceful protests on the streets of Yemen. While the Yemeni women in the North West of England where I worked for a couple of years did not even dare to participate in a radio show for Muslim women, not even under pseudonyms and assurances that I will mask their voices by technology. They are the ones who pleaded for me to discuss their problems, yet they did not dare to participate or make an effort to improve their communities. Unfortunately, all those educated Yemeni women who promised me to think it over, offered me wrong contact numbers that I could not contact any of them for future cooperation as they promised. This shows the clear gap between Muslim women in UK and their peers in the Middle East.
My experience with Asian Muslim women was not better. Asian Muslim women would not interact or participate for almost a year of broadcasting aimed at them on extremely important issues and diverse topics, yet when I dared one day during a very short break, less than 30 seconds, to air a piece of music entitled “Crazy Frog” I was scolded on the same day by the supervisor of the volunteers at the community radio who claimed that she received strong complaints from other Muslim parents who thought that I do not reflect what they want their children to hear. I was shocked of her reaction, because the youngsters hear music at school and watch television any way, and I have already made few visits to schools and talked to youngsters of minorities and all of them gave a good feedback about entertainment issues including music, besides the “Crazy Frog” can hardly be classified as a candidate on the list of things that can corrupt people’s morals and it has no lyrics that can be accused of being misleading or misinterpreted.
The fact that some women in Muslim societies are doing their best to gain more rights is admirable, but it is shocking to compare that with Muslim women living in civilized democracies such as UK who are still struggling for their rights because they are totally lost or their activities are frozen.
I have personally met an Iraqi Sunni woman who was divorced in Iraq because she can’t bear children, who remarried to a divorcee from the Shia community, who had children from his first marriage. The couple came to UK as asylum seekers in 2006. The wife is illiterate; she has zero knowledge of reading or writing in Arabic and can’t speak a word of English. She did not know a single sole in UK to ask about procedures or legal advice or find her way few steps outside her place of residence. I happened to share with them the accommodation. They used to quarrel every single day, because he had total control of everything including their benefits money, because he is the one who fills the forms and signs documents and do all the procedures and can cash the money on her behalf. She used to come running to me sometimes three times a day to ask about every shred of information, including the junk mail because she felt insecure. She complained a great deal that she needs to buy clothes since they came to UK with nothing, but he refused her requests, she claimed that he uses a good percentage of their money to make long distance phone calls to his ex-wife who he is still in love with. She was frightened to death that he might divorce her, as he used to threaten her frequently, because she did not know what to do or where to go if such thing happen. The fact that she suffers the language barrier was disabling her totally that on the day I had to move out she broke into tears. “Who is going to tell me what is going on around me after you leave” she said. She was worried that one day she would need a mediator and since they are from different sects that whoever they will choose to go to, will not be equally fair since Sunnis and Shias have different views on many social issues.
There are a considerable number of Muslim women in UK who do not know much about their rights, or the choices they might have. While I was running a radio show for the Muslim community in Birmingham a woman phoned me off air to tell me that her husband has confiscated her passport the moment she arrived in UK, she asked me whether it is true that if she wonders outside her home the police might arrest her as her husband warned her.
The saddening reality is, the very few Muslim women who managed to be employed by the local authorities are made busy circulating emails and organising events about how to counteract extremism. A very negligible percentage of them are dedicated to help women to get out of their cocoons.
Needless to say that it is difficult to help such women in such communities if things are left to their husband’s choice, because many are instructed that even attending a meeting or a class without the permission of the husband is disobeying God and would eventually lead to permanent torture in hell.
For those reasons, I believe protecting and educating women in Muslim communities should not be left for the choice of men, community leaders, nor the women themselves. It is the government’s duty to make sure that women have access to their rights and to education, because an illiterate mother will never know what her children are reading and this is even more dangerous at an era where the cyber sphere is swarming with all kinds of unmonitored misinforming messages. The first step towards social justice and stability is through educating and protecting women and helping them to make informed decision, but most of all, a law should be enforced that covers all equally, regardless of individuals faiths or gender to make sure that the vulnerable are protected.