From Bride to Wife: The Women of Patriarchal Muslim Men

From Bride to Wife: The Women of Patriarchal Muslim Men September 2, 2013

Since my conversion to Islam, I have struggled with depictions of Muslim brides and wives in the mainstream Western media. From the images of famous non-Muslim women marrying famous Muslim men  to the images of “pious” Chechen women sacrificing themselves for Syrian rebels, portrayals of Muslim brides and wives in mainstream Western media sources often depict two types of stories: either melodramatic romance novels or horror tales.

I was often left to wonder, is that all there is for Muslim women? While good and bad marriages happen in every culture, country and religious community, it was difficult to get even a glimpse of any healthy and successful Muslim relationships from mainstream media stories.

In recent months many stories about “Muslim marriage” have made it to news. Not only the rumours about Perry Edwards marrying Zayn Malik in a so-called “Muslim wedding,” but also the news on glamour model Carley Watts, who has said she will be converting to Islam and turning to hijab to please her Tunisian soon-to-be husband.

Carley Watts and her new hijabi persona. Via

As in this case, romance stories involving converts and non-Muslim women often focus on the “pleasing the husband” aspect. Few converts or non-Muslims are ever depicted as assertive, independent women who make decisions by themselves (other than the decision to get married).

Stories of innocent or deluded brides often turn into horror stories post-marriage as marriages between converts and Muslims or Muslims and non-Muslims are treated with general suspicion.

When Muslim marriages are covered, it is often through the lens of common themes, i.e. child marriage, forced marriage, abuse, polygamy and feminicide.  It might be inevitable that whereas happy and unproblematic marriages rarely make it to the media, sensationalist stories are almost guaranteed to headline, but coverage of Muslim marriages disproportionately represents problematic stories.

This is not to say that these stories do not deserve coverage, because they do. Discussing these themes is definitely important and necessary not only in the case of Muslims but any other group as well.

For example, in the past few days, a minor from Kerala was reportedly forced to marry a man from the Arab Gulf (some sources cite a man from the Emirates, while others describe a Saudi man). The man abused her and later abandoned her, causing uproar among human rights activists and Kerala authorities.

On a similar note, Qanta Ahmed wrote an article describing the murder of Farzana Bibi as the type of abuse that gives Muslims a bloodthirsty reputation elsewhere. The story which has been sparingly covered by mainstream media outlets was quickly picked up by anti-Muslim sites. Comparable stories though are often published by mainstream media and hate-speech outlets and are used to demonstrate Muslim men’s brutality.

Qanta Ahmed. Via

As a convert, these media depictions posed a problem for me. They puzzled and worried me, and they meant that upon my conversion my family pictured me in black, heavy robes following a bearded man to the middle of the desert. The man would be an abusive husband that will not only lock me up but also physically and verbally abuse me. My family would shake papers at me and show me how bad Muslim men turn upon marriage based on the stories that my local newspaper published.

Aside from domestic violence and feminicide, mainstream media outlets have often focused on polygamy and the women that practice it, although no one presents reliable statistics. With UK having a large number of professional women practicing polygamy, some writers have characterized this trend as “Muslim libertarianism”- and I can only roll my eyes at this. The practice which is polemical among Muslims and often frowned upon in Western and non-Muslim settings, depicts Western-born career women “settling” for a second, third or fourth wife status for their own benefit. But while some remain skeptical of polygamy and the claims on increasing numbers of women practicing it, others see it as a form of marriage that can solve Russia’s economic problems.

When it came to polygamy my non-Muslim family would imagine a bearded Muslim guy showing up for dinner along with four wives and multiple children, as some media reports made it sound as if many Muslim men forced their wives into polygamy. Just the thought of it made my mother cringe.

Depictions of Muslim men as they relate to issues of abuse, polygamy, child marriage and other issues perpetuate the idea that these cases are unique of the Muslim community, and that women who marry Muslim men are inevitably doomed. However, as my Latin American experience attests, macho behaviour is common across many patriarchal cultures…including those that claim to save women elsewhere from their men (Bush, anyone?). And as sad and horrific as some of the “Muslim marriage” stories are (and this should never be forgotten), it is also important to remember that stories such as these are not inherently tied to any one group, culture or religion.

Portrayals of Muslim brides and wives are so limited it often seems from the outside that they are on an inevitable trajectory from fairytale exotic brides to suffering in horrific and abusive marriages. This drives me to ask how exactly normal portrayals of Muslim brides and wives can interject and disrupt this media-created storyline?

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7 responses to “From Bride to Wife: The Women of Patriarchal Muslim Men”

  1. Ah, Qanta Ahmed. When she isn’t complaining about how the Western media is insufficiently anti-Muslim, she is jumping in favour of the NYPD’s wholesale surveillance of the entire Muslim community, or waxing poetic about the wonders of Israel. Nice work if you can get it.

  2. Hello,

    I am curious if you have read the book Ali and Nino. It’s something of a classic, with a major theme being the straddling between Eastern and Western cultures and (as i perceive it) a degree of shifting of power dynamics between the spouses.

  3. What a wonderful way for the American media to ignore our own outrageous problems with domestic violence and sexual violence against women. It’s the old “Oh, look at what those people are doing! We must not be so bad.” distraction. How many domestic violence cases end in the death of the wife in the US? How many American women have been in or are currently in abusive relationships? Too many!!!! Yes, it happens in Muslims marriages too, but why does the media make it out to be an Islamic issue when they know perfectly well it is a human issue? I for one am married to a bearded Muslims man, who- if anything- caters to my ever whim, considers me in all matters, and works and has worked hard to keep our relationship great for the past 11 years. He does this because he IS a Muslim and wants to follow the example of the Prophet. I invite the media to run the story of our marriage.

  4. What I really wish there was more of in the media (but which, for pretty obvious reasons, will rarely make it there) are the many, many happy, joyous love stories of Muslim men and the women they love and marry.

    Perhaps not as dramatic or news-worthy as tales of abused brides or celebrity converts-for-love, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to share the story of a Muslim man (for shock factor, let’s make him bearded and religious) and the wife whom he loves with all his heart?

  5. Hey is there something wrong with the comments section? My own first comment seems to have gone down the memory hole…

  6. Great post! I thought the media’s worst depiction of the stereotypical “controlling Muslim man” and “cowed convert wife” was the constant coverage they did over the older Boston bomber and his wife. They made it seem like every relationship between a convert Muslim woman and her Muslim husband should come under immense scrutiny and suspicion from now on in America because all these relationships are “dysfunctional”/sarcasm.

  7. For older folks like me who grew up in the 80ss, it was the movie and book “Not Without My Daughter” by Betty Mahmoody that we Muslim girls and women had to contend with that “proved” that Muslim men are as described above. Amazing. When a white man kills his wife, children, and himself, he is “just crazy”. When it’s a Muslim or non-white, non-Christian man, it is because of his belief system/culture, etc. What bigotry and hypocrisy.

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