Sunday, December 16, 2012

South Asian Marriage Manuals: Men Telling Women What to Do

I've been reading some marriage manuals from (Muslim) South Asia lately, and I've been updating my Facebook buddies--the females--about the task to remind them of their obligations as potential wives and as women. I'll share one status message and the comments that the girls posted in response to it. Really great conversations, so. Maybe once I'm totally free and stuff, I can write an actual blog post about these marriage manuals and how problematic (and disturbing and offensive, to both women and men!) they are. Or maybe not. 

First, let me introduce these marriage manuals and make a disclaimer that these are not necessarily grounded in Islam.
Marriage manuals are didactic literature intended as lessons for husbands and wives—but most often wives—to remind them of their duties and rights towards their spouses, children, parents, in-laws, and others around them. They reveal valuable information about what it means, according to the societies in which they are prevalent, to be man and woman as well as husband and wife—and how to be a good one. Unfortunately, however, cultural and social norms of masculinity and femininity, of husband and wife,  are justified from religious viewpoints so as to insinuate that these lessons and commands are not from humans but are in fact from God; rejecting or not making enough sincere efforts to live up to these expectations, then, may have eschatological consequences, which the pious Muslim reader will strive sincerely to avoid. These manuals tell readers not simply what to expect from a marriage partner but also what to prefer in her/him. The significance of such a teaching is that it reminds the readers how to avoid committing sin, how to avoid hellfire and attain heaven, as certain preferences are religiously prohibited and others permitted—or at least strongly encouraged. Examples of such preferences, the manuals remind readers consistently, are prioritizing obedience to husband in the female partner and piety in both partners. Moreover, they tell us what the correct ways of finding and keeping marriage partners are. If done the un-Islamic or prohibited way, the person may suffer the consequences in both worlds. They may also influence the reader’s emotions, telling them what to feel when and how to respond, emotionally or otherwise, to the behavior of those around them.

There are some things that these manuals take from what's in hadiths (and none of it is from/in the Qur'an), and a few of the teachings are from early Muslim scholars of the 8th-12th centuries, such as the idea that the wife has to submit sexually to her husband at any time he likes it-- or the idea that he can forbid her from visiting her friends, family relatives, even the funerals of her loved ones (parents, siblings, children) if the husband says no just in case the husband is in the mood to be intimate while she's away (!!!). But importantly, according to early Muslim scholars, the wife's only role is to have sex with her husband; she is not obligated--even encouraged--to cook, clean, serve her husband in any other way, or even to raise her kids if she doesn't want to; the husband is required to figure out other ways to take care of household chores, like finding a maid for housework and a nanny for the kids. 

So, interestingly but not at all surprisingly, the manuals borrow early Muslim scholars' ideas of the wife's complete sexual submission to her husband but they ignore the other teachings, such as that the wife has no responsibilities whatsoever. Instead, these manuals even tell the wife how to know when to do the laundry, how to organize the kitchen, how to keep the house clean, how to know when to offer the husband and in-laws dishes, and so on. Importantly, of course, these manuals are rooted in a specific social context--e.g., submission to in-laws is valued in most of them (they say the wife's happiness depends on it), and this is specific to particular societies since throughout South Asia, husbands and wives live with their extended families, and the mother-in-law is the queen of the house, dominating not just her daughters-in-law but also her sons and sometimes her husband. The manuals claim that the wives are responsible for serving their parents-in-law and siblings-in-law no matter how abusive the in-laws might be (and I'm sure many of us are aware of the abuse perpetrated by in-laws against daughters-in-law).

The point is, marriage manuals make for a fascinating read. Just don't take them as religious guidelines or religious obligations. They're written by men, in many cases from several decades ago and are thus situated in customs and norms that are incompatible with today (such as wife's complete submission to her husband or the claim that the wife must always be available for her husband for intimacy, etc.). The only way these can be attributed to "Islam" is through the teachings of early Muslim scholars and jurists who contributed to the development of Islamic Law (the Shari'a)--who even said that mahr (the dower) is obligatory for the husband to give to his wife only so that sexual intercourse can become legal between them and that without mahr, the marriage is invalid--why? Because until and unless the amount of mahr to be given the wife has been at the very least stipulated in the marriage contract, even if not given to her in its completion, the husband cannot approach her. And they require the wife to accept the mahr. The Qur'an, however, suggests that the mahr is, yes, obligatory but only and only if the wife accepts it. If she doesn't want to accept it, she has the right to reject it. [See Qur'an 4:4, which says: "And give the women their [bridal] gifts graciously. But if they give up willingly to you anything of it, then take it in satisfaction and ease."]

That's a dilemma for Muslim jurists: on the one hand, the Qur'an doesn't require the wife to accept the mahr; on the other, they (the male jurists/scholars) insisted that without it, the wife is not legal to the husband. So they came up with the solution that: "No, it's not voluntary, and the wife absolutely must accept it whether she wants it or not." 

I'll write on mahr another time. For now, take a look at the following comments that I got from Facebook for a status message I posted on the marriage manuals... with a disturbing quote from a manual by Ashraf Ali Thanavi, a great and influential scholar from South Asia who lived from the 1860s till the 1940s. I'll share status 1 here for now and status 2 later on.

Also, please read them without thinking "Oh my God, people actually take these seriously?!" Yes, people do take them seriously, and that's why they and the messages in them matter so much. Their influence has already been studied by several scholars, among whom are Judith Walsh (her 
How To Be the Goddess of Your Home: An Anthology of Domestic Manuals is worth a read) and Barbara Metcalf (her Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf 'Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar is great, too).

Now on to the fun stuff :)

Status 1:
According to a South Asian marriage manual I'm reading (that insists it's all Islamic):
"The husband-wife relationship is not one of only love, play and humor… it is also necessary to couple love with respect for one’s husband. To try to think of him as one’s equal is a grave mistake. Never ever ask him to physically serve you (it is, of course, quite another aspect for him to act in accordance with the Sunnah of Nabee and help you). Even if he should lovingly come and massage your head and feet…politely, ask him not to take the trouble. Why? Because would you prefer your father to physically serve you? Do remember a husband’s rank is higher than one’s father. (Of course, if he insists out of love and concern, there is nothing wrong, for he is your lover, but do not be so audacious as to ask him to physically serve you.)” 


Ashraf's Blessings of Marriage, (published in 1999), page 202.
Responses from ladies, some of them married (interestingly, no male responded ... hm...):

1. Pfft.
My reply: omg, I hope your husband isn't nearby or anything. Please don't laugh unless he's in a good mood for you to laugh ... oh wait, I didn't paste that part of the manual. Here's what it says: As soon as your husband comes home, evaluate his temperament. If you find him “in a pleasant humorous mood,” you are to “engage him in light-hearted talk and jokes"; "if he's sombre, treat him accordingly."
2's response: Oh I'll treat him accordingly alright...

So. Obviously, that doesn't apply to men.

Another example (also almost verbatim): Men are to find righteous, pious women for marriage because bad women are a curse and a bad woman means bad children and so on. Why should he choose a good woman? Because Islam values piety.

So ... it values piety only in women, these manuals suggest. ... Then again, their main audience is often women, so.

And the terminology used for women and men ... omg. Men are portrayed as kind, merciful, good creatures who do everything in their power to keep their wives happy; women, in return, are so ungrateful, so evil, so selfish ... 

3. Grave mistake not sin, phew!

My reply: the manual insists that you not seek advice from just any person but do so only from a "pious scholar"--and they tell you over and over that this manual was evaluated and approved by great scholars and that it draws its knowledge from Ashraf Ali Thanavi and other important scholars. So when they tell you something's a grave mistake, it means a sin - don't you know? gosh. They also tell us how bad today's women are, ignoring these wonderful advice from pious scholars ... so careful!! hmph.

4. I need a barf bag. Let me yell for my husband to come bring me one.

5. Why do you even read such stuff? Why give their books and ideas more publicity than they deserve.

6. It was written by a man sweetheart, a muslim man, what did you expect

My response: Tragic, I swear. Apparently, some of these are still being produced and are still being given to women as part of their dower/dowry! It's mindblowing how dangerous this is.

7. is a failure to evaluate 'his' temperament also a sin?

My reply: It actually is, they say! See, they use Qur'anic verses and hadiths that are very general and apply to all people, including men, but use them as support for their sick ideas about women. Example (almsot verbatim): Women are supposed to be absolutely quiet when the husband is fighting with her or is angry because if she talks back to him, it'll anger him and ruin his mood even further. Try it - if you're patient like that, you'll see that he'll feel so embarrassed he'll love you more. Today, most marriages fall because the wives talk back to their husbands when the poor husbands come home tired from work and are in a bad mood. The wives are so ungrateful they fight back. So the husband gets madder. How do we know women are required to be silent when husbands are angry? Because the Qu'an says to be patient and patience is a virtue and God loves those who are patient. Another "proof" is that the Prophet loves those who are silent. (And these books offer tonnns of stories and anecdotes about women who are bad simply because they "talk too much.")

8. Lol wow I am glad I don't have to be so careful with my husband. I think I scored a good one hahaha. I think for him it's the other way around. He evaluates my temperament when I come home. I am not sure if this manual can apply to each and every married couple but it sure can teach men how to be even when they are not so naturally. I don't like these brainwashing manuals lol

9. I find it so hilarious!!! Gave me a good laugh! Thank Allah for husbands with sense. 

10. Yaar in all seriousness I cannot believe this nonsense. Here's to millions of desi women all over the globe unraveling yearsss of male domination! More power to her :)

11. so a good wife must have a PhD in psychology too? i mean gauging someone's frame of mind, evaluating mood etc needs training. I kind of understand what else would have been written in that book. have grown-up listening to these things. its just that i find it funny how people accept all that is packages as religion without a pinch of salt. I wonder how they classify the defiance of Aasia, wife of Pharoah?'

My response: Or the defiance of Aisha, the Prophet's wife! She challenged and criticized hadith narrators all the time (like Abu Huraira) for spreading lies, especially about women; she also challenged the Prophet and never hesitated to tell him she was angry at him or hurt for something he'd done. When he got married to Zainab (whom Islamic sources suggest the Prophet married because of her beauty) and said that God had told him to marry her, Aisha responded with: "You - God is always on your side, isn't He? You're always finding justifications for your marriages via Jibreell!" Then there was the Prophet's other wife, Umm Salama, who, too, has gone down in Islamic history as an intelligent and powerful woman. She's the one who once told the Prophet, "How come God is never talking to women in the Qur'an but always talks only to men?" And in response, we got the verse that says something like "Men who are pious and women who are pious, men who are patient and women who are patient, ... will go to heaven" or something. Umm Salama also once told Umar, who came to the Prophet's wife to scold all of his wives for not obeying Muhammad, that "Who put you in charge of us? If our husband doesn't like something we do, he'll be sure to let us know; mind your business."

12. So a smart woman's lesson from this book is that she should only and only marry a guy who truly loves her. So, her mere presence will make him happy and she will attain eternal blessings/heaven for being his happiness.


  1. Im not going to argue with you because there is confirmation and selection bias going on with your posts. Maybe it's because you dont have a thorough understanding of Quran ans hadith( did you know people study Arabic before they try to understand Hadith and Quran? Do you know that they study Islamic studies for a decade before making judgement calls?) or you are a product of whatever education system is sculpturing you but the notion that you put one side/one meaning of the rulings in marriage is problematic. I understand you are feminist but you have to believe that men and women are inherently not equal. Their moods, wishes, temperaments and and emotions are wildly different. I suggest you post these confusions on an islamic forum so at least the "selection bias" can be rid of your "research". I think you are doing a disservice by downplaying or even misrepresenting Islam's position of woman.

    1. Thank you SO much for your comment, Anonnie! Always a pleasure to come across differences.

      P.S. "Equal" doesn't mean "same" - women and men are not the same, and I've never for the life of me come across anyone who thinks women and men are the same. All genders are different - but absolutely equal. Think of it this way: Do Chinese men look like South Asian men? Do African men look like Russian men? No, right? But are they still equal? Of course they are. They have different cultures, beliefs, expectations and wishes and so on - but are still equal.

      P.P.S. You'd love This :)

      Thanks again for your comment and for your opinion. Fortunately, we disagree. I like disagreements :) They can be good for the soul. I look forward to hearing from you more often around here!

    2. What the hell you fool! Does your wife know you think Islam says women and men are unequal? Your the one who is giving Islam a bad image but accusing Q of doing that. You must have read too many of these pathetic backward marriage manuals. get lost!!!!

      Q your doing a great job :) Keep it up! If I were you I'd put this jerk in his place, though!

    3. LOL, Amina :) Thanks for your support - but don't worry; I'm not bothered by Anonnie's comment. Don't let it bug you, either, jaan. I doubt it's meant to be offensive; it's just that the one thing that has hardly changed historically in many religious communities (Muslim or otherwise) is the idea of the ideal "pious" woman, who's supposed to accept an inferior position in society that has falsely been attributed to religion (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.). We've normalized the set of thinking on gender norms to the point that we now see them as "natural" enough to be Islamic/divine, not realizing that they're actually remnants of the societal thinking of a certain period and region (they're not even from Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in most cases; that's what makes our ideas of women so tragic and dangerous!)... and we forget that religion, while revealed by God, is actually interpreted by humans, however, well-intentioned they might be, and so it's inevitable that what they say about gender roles will be applicable to a certain time/region, never to all, since social norms are ever-changing and should thus not be universal or eternal for any religion,

      And Anonnie is a male? I thought it was a female. I'm not sure why I assumed that.

      Thanks again for the support and readership! Always appreciated! :)


Dare to opine :)

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