June 22nd, 2011

Reclaim Islam’s message of equality

The Obedient Wives Club is an opportunity to discuss how archaic gender roles impede engagement with today’s social problems.

By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib

Like many Singaporeans, I was initially amused when news broke about a group of Malaysians setting up an Obedient Wives Club (OWC).

But the amusement quickly turned to dismay when The New Paper reported that some local men and women are intending to set up a branch of the OWC in Singapore and promote the idea that social ills can be solved through wives pleasing their husbands in bed – and in the words of the OWC’s founder, through wives performing in bed “like a first-class prostitute”.

Never mind that the proponents of this club are from Global Ikhwan. This fringe group is an offshoot of the Al-Arqam, a movement outlawed in Malaysia but still active in the region. The fact that they have decided to promote their views warrants a response.

My concern is less about what people do in the confines of their bedroom. Rather, what is worrying are the ludicrous claims made by proponents of the OWC and their assumptions concerning what Islam says about the role of wives and the position of women in general.

While it is easy to dismiss such patriarchal and sexist views and dissociate them from Islam and/or the Malay community in general, it may take a lot more to unpack the assumptions governing the thoughts of people who support the OWC or who are at least sympathetic to their views.

In fact, it may not be too difficult to trace the extreme views of the OWC to some of the more subtle but dominant patriarchal orientations existing within segments of the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore.

Try visiting some of the bookstores in Geylang Serai that stock up popular writings on Islam written in Malay, particularly on the subject of marital relations.

Subjects ranging from lovemaking etiquette to instruction manuals on how wives can please their husbands fill the shelves. It would almost be excusable for general observers to conclude that the subject of sex is definitely not taboo for the community. What is unmistakably clear from these writings is the absolute right of the husband to be sexually gratified by their wives at all times.

While it is clear that classical juristic writings by early Muslim scholars highlighted the mutual rights of husbands and wives to have their biological (sexual) needs met in a marriage, patriarchal tendencies often dominated and gave husbands unrestricted access.

According to academic Kecia Ali’s recent book, Marriage & Slavery In Early Islam (2010), this tendency developed as a consequence of the marriage contract being treated like a business transaction, where a man’s right to a woman’s body is balanced with the woman’s right to the mahr or dowry.

Thus, marriage is primarily seen not as a fulfillment of mutual love and respect, but as a set of duties and obligations. The man, as the absolute leader of the family, is entitled to absolute obedience from the woman. Any form of denying or subverting the authority of the husband may constitute nushuz (‘rebellion’).

This, inadvertently, includes the authority and right for men to demand sex, even if she refuses.

Such writings, which advocate the absolute submission of wives, are by no means rare. They form part of the episteme of traditionalist Islam. The popularity of books like Tohfa-e-Doulhan (Gift For The Bride), sold in local bookstores, obviously latches on to this dominant orientation as much as it seeks to entrench patriarchy through religious discourse. This is the crisis of traditionalist thought in Muslim jurisprudence.

One cannot comprehend the gravity of the proposal to set up the OWC without being aware of how central this notion of ‘obedience’ is in traditionalist discourse on Islam.

In Malay, obedience is called taat. This term proliferates in almost all discussions on the role and responsibilities of the Muslim wife with regards to her husband. Given the centrality of the notion of taat isteri kepada suami (wife’s obedience to the husband), it is not surprising that all social ills relating to family life, such as divorce and delinquency, are tied to the notion of ‘straying’ from the concept of ‘obedience and authority’.

In the simplistic minds of the traditionalists, since the family is the basic unit of society, all problems can be addressed when men perform their rightful authority responsibly and women obey men as an act of submission to ‘God’s Will’.

Within this patriarchal structure, men are a degree above women. Thus, an internal Muslim critique on gender biases is often dismissed as an imposition from alien worldviews such as ‘Western feminism’.

A notable Muslim jurist, Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, brilliantly dissected such problems in contemporary Muslim discourse on gender in his book, Speaking In God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority & Women (2001).

Scholars like him have identified the prevalence of the language of ‘obedience’ as an example of how the Muslims’ religious discourse on gender is in serious need of reform. This is a task that has been undertaken by contemporary reformists such as Ziba Mir Hosseini (Iran), Asma Barlas (USA), Riffat Hassan (Pakistan), Farid Esack (South Africa), Asghar Ali Engineer (India), KH. Hussein Muhammad (Indonesia), Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco) and countless others.

In their progressive interpretation of Islam, a woman’s ‘obedience’ is owed directly to God as a principle of tawheed (monotheism), and not via ‘obedience’ to the male/husband.

They also highlighted that marriage is based on the equality of men and women, and, as specified in the Qur’an, “so that you may dwell in tranquility” and develop “deep feelings of love and mercy” (Q.30:21). Furthermore, roles and responsibilities are to be negotiated in mutual trust and respect, and are not pre-determined by God.

What is important is that their vision is grounded in the same sacred sources of the Qur’an and Hadith (prophetic traditions). Unfortunately, these perspectives have often been neglected and sometimes outright rejected in the name of an ossified and fossilised ‘Islam’.

The recent sensational news about the formation of the OWC provides an opportunity to open up discussion about one of the most taboo topics in public discourse – sex in marital life.

For reform-minded gender activists, this is the time to seize the moment and correct centuries-old assumptions about gender roles and relations – from issues of reproductive rights, inheritance law to marital rape.

It is also an opportunity to highlight the limits of traditionalist thought in properly diagnosing social issues and problems. For Muslims in particular, it is time for critical self-reflection, for reclaiming the egalitarian message of Islam, and for repositioning women as equally dignified partners in all spheres of life, marital relations included. It is time for a new gender discourse to take shape in the community.

The writer is a post-graduate student at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Malay Studies, and a social activist with The Reading Group, Singapore. His research focuses on the religious orientation of the Malays and contemporary discourses on Islam.
This article was commissioned by AWARE for our website. An edited version was published in the Straits Times on June 22, 2011. Read more about this issue here and here.


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