The following review appears in this months edition of the Muslim Views.
PULL QUOTE: It is significant that nowhere in the Wasiyat does the word love occur.
The scripted lives of six Muslim women
Here’s a fancy expression: reflexivity of the self. It simply means having the freedom to determine your own destiny. It’s about making your own decisions that suit your needs, being free to be an individual, to be different from the masses.
Shafinaaz Hassim is a young sociologist who’s just published a book entitled Daughters are Diamonds. It’s an academic study and it deals with the reflexivity issues of six Indian Muslim women in the Gauteng area. It’s called a groundbreaking study because it documents and presents, for the first time, the stories of women whose reflexivity has been undermined by those closest to them.
And for this reason the book can also be provocative. Although the women are anonymous, it is not their names that draw attention, but their unique experience. So it is quite conceivable, for example, that “Salma, 46, Cheated-On”—tagged with this badge of dishonour—is recognised by those who know of her in Johannesburg as a woman married straight out of matric at age 19, as a daughter-in-law who cared for her husband’s younger siblings. They may very well know her as a wife who endures her husband’s infidelity, who chooses not to leave him due to financial dependence and for fear of losing her children. Infidelity may be common, but her case bears the imprint of unique individual experience.
Hassim’s study confronts family and theological structures that uphold these codes of honour and all the practices associated with undermining the self-reflexivity of Muslim women. It questions tradition, culture and custom, some of which date back to pre-Islamic civilisations. However, izzat, or the code of honour that Muslim women raised in these environments are required to observe is often viewed as an Islamic tradition. Hassim, following the arguments of scholars like Lila Abu-Lughod and Asma Barlas, says that a patriarchal reading of the Qur’an as well as political, economic and cultural factors that have nothing to do with Islam are used as a basis for the scripted lives of Muslim women. And the script includes forms of social control, seclusion, subordination and exploitation.
In reading Hassim’s study one encounters various forms and instances of social control. However, there is one that merits closer analysis: the Wasiyat, also known as the “Advice of a Mother to her Daughter on her Wedding day. The author of the Wasiyat is unknown, but it is often distributed to guests at Indian Muslim weddings as an accompaniment to sweets. The actual text has no known reference, but is currently on the website of the Jamiatul Ulama (KZN). Another example is the ten long advices offered to the Muslim wife by Maulana Ajaz Azami, published online by Madrasah Arabia Islamia, Azaadville.
There is no special significance that may be attached to the Wasiyat as a text espousing the subordination of the Muslim wife in itself. It is simply a good example of the kind of discourse that undermines the reflexivity of married Indian Muslim women.
The literal and figurative language of the Wasiyat is telling: “be an earth for him and he will be your sky”. The symbolism is ample. Is the recommended distance between a Muslim man and his wife like that between heaven and earth? Is she the earth to be walked upon and he the unattainable sky?
“Be his bondmaid and he will be your slave” Is slavery an appropriate metaphor for the relationship between husband and wife? There should be no bondage in marriage, only a mutual willingness to serve based on love. The only legitimate bondage is that between the Muslim and Allah.
It is significant that nowhere in the Wasiyat does the word love occur. The Wasiyat does not at all address the very basis on which a marital relationship is supposed to exist.
The physical needs of the husband are granted due recognition. Those of the wife are not mentioned: “Be prepared for him at mealtimes, for the heat of hunger is inflammable. Be quiet when he is asleep, for the disturbance of sleep infuriates.”
This casts the wife in the traditional role of home executive, which, in itself may be a perfectly negotiable arrangement between spouses. However, it explicitly sanctions the gratification of the husband’s hunger and need for rest. None for the wife. It is a crudely unilateral obligation. It also presents a crudely stereotypical image of the despotic husband: given to fury in the heat of hunger and disrupted sleep. This is no tribute to the husband either.
The same applies to the emotional needs of each: “Should he draw near, then draw close to him; should he become distant then stay away from him…dare not be joyous when he is worried, for this will be wrong on your part, and dare not display sadness when he is happy for this will breed hatred.”
These lines reveal the essence of emotional states in compromised self-reflexivity. The wife is expected not only to accept that her husband’s emotional needs are superior and the only ones worthy of gratification, but also that her emotional needs are less worthy and subject to self-negation. Furthermore, the function of depersonalising a deeply personal aspect of the self is delegated to the relegated self. She is expected to deny her own need for love and to acknowledge his. She is expected to become the instrument of her own suffering so that he has no notion of it and therefore no compassion or guilt.
The Wasiyat is quite explicit in its definition of power relations in the marriage. It is a hierarchy and the wife necessarily owes obeisance to the husband. Moreover, this balance of power is given divine sanction. Allah wills that a wife should necessarily be obedient to her husband. The reverse is, by implication, a violation of the divine order.
The point, made so cogently by scholars like Abu-Lughod, Barlas and Hassim, that the Qur’an and the Prophetic model do not endorse these values and practices that diminish the autonomy and self-reflexivity of the woman, should be fully appreciated.
We cannot let a misappropriation of the Qur’an or the Prophetic model be an instrument of social injustice.
Ibn Al Fikr