USA: American women assert rights in Islamic marriage contracts

Associated Press via WUNRN
The young Muslim couple chose a path advocated by Islamic scholars concerned about women's rights: drawing up a Muslim marriage contract that takes into account modern needs.
Should anything go wrong in her marriage, Zaynab Abdul-Razacq is confident her rights will be well-protected. Her husband has guaranteed it in writing.
Abdul-Razacq's agreement states that she is in charge of the household finances and that if her husband abuses her in "any dimension of wellness" she can automatically divorce him. Her husband, Salahud-Din Abdul-Razacq, stipulated that he could make decisions about their life together without interference from in-laws and other relatives.

"At the outset, we agreed these are things that are pretty important to us," said Zaynab Abdul-Razacq, who lives in Georgia, and married three years ago.

The contract has long been a Muslim tradition. Most, however, contain just one key provision, that of the "mahr," a gift usually of money, that the man gives the woman.

Islamic law experts who advocate for better treatment for women say the documents can help them assert rights under religious law that have long been played down by men. Advocates contend their approach is well within Islamic law, even though skeptics say the interpretation is too influenced by Western thinking.

The contract is especially useful in the United States, where Muslims come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and follow different customs and levels of observance. The document can accommodate views ranging from liberal to conservative.

Karamah, an organization of Muslim women lawyers based in Washington, is developing a "model" marriage contract that can be adjusted to meet the requirements of family law in different parts of the country, said Azizah al-Hibri, a founder of the group, whose name means "dignity" in Arabic. In the United States, civil law governs divorce, but judges have taken Muslim marriage contracts into consideration, sometimes viewing them as prenuptial agreements.

Al-Hibri, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said the contracts also help couples prepare for the challenges of married life.

"Couples need to define their relationship as they enter the marriage, so that they do not get disillusioned later," al-Hibri said. "They need a meeting of the minds on what their family life will look like. The contract helps them do that by discussing the issues up front."

It's generally accepted that Islamic law gives women the right to property and financial independence within marriage. Some Muslims scholars contend women are not even obligated to do housework. These and other details about running a house can be specified in the contract.

Negotiating the agreement, "brings an air of reality and rationality to a process that is often fraught with emotion," said Aminah McCloud, professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. McCloud's own marriage contract says that her husband must accompany her when she travels and that she is not obligated to cook.

Much of the negotiation involves the "mahr," whose dollar value ranges widely.

Some Muslim women consider the gift archaic in an age when women can earn their own salaries. Others, however, view it as a symbol that the man values the woman, similar to an engagement ring; it's also a gift that is hers alone.

Maryam Sayar and her husband, of Cortlandt Manor, New York, kept their contract simple, specifying only the "mahr." They haven't even told their families what it was.

"We both know one another so well, we have an understanding," said Sayar, 26, and a law school graduate. "I feel like there will not be any breach of any sort, because he understands my expectations of life and from the marriage as well. I similarly have an understanding of his expectations of life and marriage."

Beyond the "mahr," the marriage contract can help address concerns about certain practices allowed in Islam, even if the behavior is forbidden by U.S. civil law.

For example, polygamy is illegal in the United States, but some conservative Muslims interpret their religion as allowing a man to marry up to four women. Many Muslim brides stipulate an automatic right to divorce in their marriage contract if the man takes another wife. McCloud says that's especially important if a couple may one day live in another country.

Information about the contracts is available online, in women's magazines including Azizah, and at conventions such as the annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group for mosques and other Muslim organizations. Abdul-Razacq, who explored the contract at the insistence of her mother, consulted a book with sample documents called "Your Islamic Marriage Contract."

McCloud acknowledges the limits of the document in trying to preserve equality in such an unpredictable undertaking as marriage. But she said the contract does provide some protection if a union fails.

"There's no way to guard against the impostor, there's no way to guard against the liar," McCloud said. "But at least you have written down and witnessed something so that when you go to court to get them, you can get them."

27 August 2006, Associated Press