Ayesha Nasir’s recent article on Slate about signing her religious marriage contract in Pakistan tells of the family pressures that she and many of her “well-educated female friends” faced that led them to sign marriage contracts without reading them fully.
The article is generally well-written, and brings up some important points. Nasir talks about the ways that the Islamic marriage contract can be ideally used to protect the women who sign it (through the possibility for including stipulations about child support, the woman’s right to file for divorce, or the mahr, or dowry).
More importantly for her argument, she talks about the ways that women are being denied the opportunity to include these stipulations, for reasons of honor, politeness, and not wanting to look as if they lack trust in the husband and his family, or in God. The removal of these provisions (especially in a country where the religious marriage contract is legally binding) can make women very vulnerable, as noted by one woman that Nasir quotes:
Qaisera Sheikh, vice president of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Pakistan, says that she has seen women suffer because of their passive attitude toward the marriage contract. “Later on in their married lives when things did not work out, these women realized they had unknowingly given up their right to divorce, for child support, etc.,” she said.
What I found bizarre about this article is that its title (“I Should Have Read My Islamic Marriage Contract”), as well as the introduction and conclusion, seemed to suggest that the responsibility for not having read the marriage contract lay with Nasir herself. That it was she, personally, who “failed” by not reading it, as if she didn’t try to read it, or didn’t feel that it was important. The description of the discomfort that she felt throughout the marriage ceremony, and the appeals she made to her parents, paint a totally different picture, one that locates the failure not with Nasir alone but with all of those who refused to let her see the contract that she was asking to read before signing it.
On a broader level, the responsibility for change should belong not only to the women themselves, but also with their families, as well as their husbands–the ones who get to see the whole contract that they sign. Assuming that the bride is the primary one at fault for not reading the contract is letting a whole lot of people off the hook.