Deconstructing Pre-Marriage Advice for Singaporean Muslims

The author’s marriage contract.

This is my marriage contract, certifying that my husband and I went through a “marriage ceremony peformed under Islamic rites”, and that he had agreed to certain “special conditions” otherwise known as ta’aliq. We didn’t pay much attention to the conditions provided to us by the kadi (judge) from the syariah court, dismissing it as a formality. But this article prompted my husband to promptly tear up the contract.

Last week, an organisation dedicated to converts in Singapore was accused of teaching future couples to hit their wives if they refuse to have sex. Both the converts’ organisation and another women’s organisation mentioned in the article have since refuted these claims (here and here). It turns out that the claims were based on only the experience of the writer, and not of other course participants.

I knew this organisation and had gone there often for talks and seminars. My husband also did his formal conversion there, despite having to endure a lecturer who staunchly defended against claims of Muslim terrorism that my “Western” husband did not make, and taught us that among other things, that “Islam is the true religion because it’s not named after a person” (unlike Christianity or Buddhism). I could imagine such a situation as described by the writer actually happening, because of the lack of teaching regulations there.

What was more interesting however, were the responses from Singaporean Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds.

Essentially, the discussion centred around the difference of Muslim marriages from “Western”, “secular” or “civil” ones because the former contains elements of spirituality. Therefore, Muslim marriage courses are preferable to secular ones because they teach couples the “rights of husbands and wives in the eyes of Islam”. Following the logic that a Muslim husband is a pious head of the household, with the right to correct the mistakes of other members of his household, any beating is never meant to be violent, but a mere “expression of disapproval“. In my own my state-approved pre-marriage course, a hadith was provided as guidance to the Muslim husband to “neither hit her on her face nor use impolite language” as part of his obligation to treat his wife “with kindness and equity”. In a discussion on my Facebook wall, a young woman even pointed out that it’s not even supposed to be a “beating”, but merely a “light tap, like a handkerchief”, and therefore not degrading or a demonstration of power. No, not at all.

These were educated, middle-class Muslim women and men who chose their own marriage partners and spent many years getting to know them before marrying. I could say with some certainty that they might never experience domestic violence, but they still defended the dominant interpretation of the verse. Taking “beating” as a given, they tried to soften the potential blow by explaining the severity of the blow, where it could be done, and with what. In a way, they tried to speak on behalf of Muslim women who have been abused and had their abuse justified by religious reasons (which occurs in many possible ways; see here).

While the discussion revolved around the issue of difference and the accuracy of translating the verse in question (Quran 4:34) as “beating”, the underlying issue of the refusal of sex was not addressed. Muslim women could not refuse sex without intangible (whether heavenly curse or a light tap) or tangible consequences.

In my course, I was taught that as a Muslim wife, giving “free sexual access at all lawful times” (in addition to “submission to husband” and “obedience”) was a condition to receive financial maintenance (nafkah). A Muslim wife could not receive maintenance if she was physically absent from the home without her husband’s permission (for reasons such as traveling or going for haj). She could not refuse sexual intercourse without “angels cursing her until morning”, even when her husband was approaching her because he was “charmed by (another) woman”. These notions squarely avoid women’s sexual agency and place the burden of domestic harmony on women — the main vision of the Obedient Wives’ Club in neighbouring Malaysia.

During my pre-marriage course, I was warned as a Muslim wife to uphold my husband’s “conjugal rights”, but I was assumed to have no sexual needs or agency. The sex education provided by the elderly male heterosexual lecturer only consisted of a rapid and awkward speeding through of the restrictions of the “when” and “how” of sexual intercourse from only the husband’s perspective. Sadly, the sexual agency of Muslim women remains virtually non-existent in the consciousness of Singaporean Muslims. Arguably, this is also the case of Muslims in general, which as Eren has rightly pointed out, helps explain the popularity of writing that explores Muslim women’s love lives.

The contradiction between the pre-marriage advice I received and my own vision of marriage as an uplifting spiritual union reveals the tension between what we are taught to be a “properly Muslim” marriage and the reality of the diverse lives we lead. We read online articles with titles containing “Muslim wife” or “Muslim husband” (examples here and here), which cater to hypothetical couples who have never interacted with each other (or perhaps not even any member of the opposite gender) before marriage.

We are expected to have our Muslim and gender identities supersede and disregard all other identities like ethnicity, class or age. There is scant advice for intercultural couples, or wives who earn more and/or are older than their husbands. This implies that couples should be of the same ethnic background, or that ethnicity never matters when one is truly Muslim, and that the husband is always wealthier and/or older than the wife.

The gendered roles and rules of behaviour in the form of “rights” and “obligations” place fixed expectations on each spouse and leave no room for individual circumstances and personality, instead creating possibilities for resentment. But in the highly institutionalised practice of Islam in Singapore, due to the semi-government regulation of Muslims, any variations on the legal Islamic standard on what constitutes a Muslim marriage, the roles of the husband and the wife, and assumptions on which partner possesses sexual agency, are seen to be deviant and unIslamic.

For example, even though Muslim couples are free to make a marriage contract and place any conditions in it, in practice all Muslim marriage contracts in Singapore include wifely “obedience” (and all its assumptions about gender roles and sexual agency) as a condition for financial maintenance.

During my third marriage ceremony,* in the presence of a judge from the Singapore syariah court, my husband was required to read this out loud:

“On every occasion that I fail to maintain my wife whereas she is obedient to me… and my wife complains to the Syariah Court, and if her complaint is proved, then she is divorced by one talak.”

I had heard this read out so many times, at so many weddings, for so many years, that I never thought twice about it. But now I think it carries too many implications.

And it’s not something I want for my own marriage. Even though marriage, and especially Islamic marriages, are highly structured and legalised in Singapore, the syariah laws are not perfect (not to mention that they’re influenced by colonial British law) and don’t fit my vision of marriage. Instead of having to follow these external counsels and requirements, I want my husband and I to be able to think for ourselves, knowing that our situation will change materially and ideologically over time.

The dual marriage system and social norms in Singapore mean that there is only one kind of valid marriage for Muslims: marriage in the Syariah Court. This meant that although I had already married twice – once at home with all the Islamic requirements, and a second time in a Dutch civil court for a marriage certificate – I had to marry a third time in the presence of a judge from the syariah court, who produced a legally non-binding letter that certified that I had indeed married Islamically.

  • Duff

    Quick questions about the ‘highly institutionalised practice of Islam, semi-government regulation of Muslims’ in Singapore: are Muslims in Singapore legally represented by an organisation or is it a just a matter of self-identification as Muslim only? Are their affairs governed by particular bodies/codes? Are there names, details, aggregate numbers kept on particular registers? Would civil marriage undertaken by a ‘Muslim’/non-Muslim couple (as opposed to an Islamic marriage) in a third country still be recognised in Singapore or Malaysia (if the couple were to visit KL)?

    If a Singaporean ‘Muslim’ didn’t particularly want to be Muslim and wanted to legally cut ties with the religion/religious bodies, is it just a simple matter of sending a letter stating your intentions to leave/disbelief to the Syariah Court? or is it a much more complex, legal wrangle as seen in neighbouring Malaysia? Also what would be th status of such a person if they were to visit Malaysia with their non-Muslim partner…would they be opening themselves up to any potential trouble…or is it just a matter of hiding any identifiably Muslim signifiers (like your surname) when checking into a hotel?

  • http://susu-pekat-manis.blogspot.com Sya

    There is a quasi-government body that claims to represent all Muslims (Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore or MUIS), and they have a register of all ‘born’ or ‘converted’ Muslims in Singapore.

    If someone wanted to ‘cut ties’, they wouldn’t do anything because of strong chances of being a social outcast, unless it has legal implications e.g. they want to marry a non-Muslim. They have to declare they are not-Muslim, before they’re allowed to have a civil marriage. MUIS then sends them a letter encouraging them to go for counseling, but this cannot be enforced (it’s more of a gentle nudge, not an arrest).

    I know many Muslims who no longer believe, or become Christian, but they don’t necessarily do anything to ‘de-register’ themselves because it would cause such an uproar in their social circles. Many people still find it hard to accept a non-Muslim Malay. But in theory they have the legal means to do so, and I’d say they are relatively able to do so as compared to Malaysian Muslims.

    I think Malaysia, it’s no problem if you are not Malaysian — you’re not subject to the same rules. I guess hiding the surname could work (but many Malay first names are very telling already). Depends on the kind of hotel you go to also — posh ones won’t even blink an eye.

  • Aliya

    Dear Duff,
    Malaysian religious authorities tend not to bother a Muslim person visiting with his/her non-Muslim partner because it is assumed that the partner too is a Muslim, practising or not is a different matter. There are many marriages in Malaysia when the partner convert in name only to satisfy the legal requirement.
    Furthermore, hotels and resorts tend to be religion-free. Nobody will bother a Muslim if he or she enjoys a cocktail anymore than anyone telling off a Hindu for eating beef. Malaysians are practical people, most of the time.

  • Extra Marital Affairs

    Hi,

    divorce occur in many reason like miss understanding between husband and wife so it effects on children also. so avoid this thing read this blog.
    http://www.theexpatcounsellors.com/


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