Muslim Matrimonials and More

Articles and Essays on Marriage and Family in Islam


Challenges and Opportunities Facing American Muslim Women

Part Five: Questions from the Audience

Edited Transcript of speeches given at a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Workshop by Muslim Women’s League
and Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights

presented by:
Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, Asifa Quraishi,
Samer Hathout, and Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri
NGO Forum, United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women
Huairou, China, September 7, 1995; reprinted from

Sections of this article:
Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Part Five: Questions from the Audience

Moderator, Laila Al-Marayati:

Thank you very much Dr. Al-Hibri. I would now like to welcome any questions that people have. As you know, we represent the Muslim Women’s League and Karamah. We based a lot of our discussion on testimony from women in our areas, and we don’t mean to speak on behalf of all Muslim women whose experiences might be different from the ones that we have described here today. These are just concerns that we think are very important, that we as Muslims need to be at the forefront in dealing with. We are tired of hearing about it in the non-Muslim and western media, and having to deal with it in the court system where we are coming from behind, trying to catch up, but we really need to be ahead. That is the main struggle that we are dealing with back in the United States that we wanted to share with you from other countries.

And now, we will be happy to entertain any questions from the audience.

Q: I am Samirah Khawaldeh from Jordan. One point is that the American court looks at the Islamic marriage contract as religious, while in fact it is not religious. We call it civil contract--it’s not religious contract. It’s like a contract between companies or something like this. It’s a worldly contract. That’s why if you nullify it, you’re not sinning or aggressing against God. This is the first thing that has to be included in your education when you come to inform the American courts about Islam.

The second thing: the mahr mu’ajjal, the delayed postponed part of the mahr. This is an invention that was done by later mujtahids. So if you cancel it, you are not doing anything wrong. Because Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not have anything mu’ajjal in his practice. Anything that was given as a gift to woman--even a ring of iron--was a gift; but there was nothing postponed during his lifetime or in the lifetime of the four caliphs after him. This idea of postponed mahr is a later part of Muslim jurisprudence, and I think we can do without it if it is against the benefit of Muslims in a society somewhere.

A third point is that it saddens me when you say that the American court will look at the Shari’ah if it goes with the interest of the child. This is our fault as Muslims, out of selfishness, the dark-heartedness of some Muslims, it allows the American courts--which we know is very far from the Islamic ideal, how many injustices have been committed in American courts--to judge our Shari’ah. Because we Muslims have failed our Shari’ah. Muslims give a very bad example, like the many examples you mentioned of Islam and the practice of Muslims. So, no matter how often you preach Islam, our practice will be stronger because this is what people see.

The last point, I am sure, even in America, there are many cases of good Muslims, and those don’t go to court. So, the bad examples that you mentioned, show us that some Muslims when they are bad they are really bad. Because first they failed God, and after failing Allah, they will be good for nobody for nothing. So, there are many good cases that go unwritten, unrecorded because they are good. And we know many cases of Muslim families living successfully, happily, looking after each other, in America. One suggestion: many second wives of Muslim men in America come to Jordan to register, and preserve their rights Islamically. I know of one; she is an American, she became a Muslim and married a married Muslim man. Of course in America, as you said, she will have no rights at all. And she has children. So she moved to Jordan, to register her marriage and to preserve her rights; she lived in Jordan for two years, and she’s going back to America. So, maybe this is one idea that can be given to American Muslim women who are second wives--to register their marriage in some Muslim country, at least, since America refuses to have this or to acknowledge this.

Dr. Al-Marayati: Thank you. First of all, there are many, many good Muslims in America. And we are very proud to be a part of that tradition. And that is why we are here--to share that and say we have the capability to deal with these problems, and we need to start doing that, and that’s why we have to talk about them. And there are also cases such as one in the midwest where a sister says that in some situations, the concept of arbitration between couples for divorce prior to entering into the court system had impressed quite a few people because of the way that the parties could deal with each other in civil, polite, courteous terms; and that is an example for others about the Muslim system of dealing with arbitration in court.

Regarding your suggestion about polygamy: it still puts that second wife at a disadvantage. A lot of these cases we’re talking about are converts, particularly in the African-American community, who would have no means to travel to a Muslim country just so that she could register to have her rights. She deserves to have them in the country she’s living in. If someone wants to practice polygamy, they should line in a country where it is legal. Because when you live in a country where it is not, the second wife has to work twice as hard to get her rights, and that’s what makes it wrong in that circumstance.

Dr. Al-Hibri: I’d like to pick up on this and then answer a few points. The particular case I was talking about is that of the Muslim sister who didn’t get her civil divorce from the first husband so her second marriage was never regarded by the American government as valid because she never registered it. But also her second marriage was not accepted by the country of the Muslim man either because her second husband was a Saudi who came to the U.S. to marry her, and never got the requisite permission of his government. And she couldn’t go to Saudia to get her rights because she could not enter--she was not regarded as his wife. She was in real big trouble. So there are complications.

The other thing is, remember, any time we are talking about the law, we’re talking about problems--criminal law, tort law, whatever. Why would people go to court if they hadn’t reached the situation of a problem. So, a lawyer looks at the problems and says "here are the problems of the community, how do we solve them?" There are a lot of good things that are happening, and the imam can celebrate them in the masjid, and we can all celebrate them. But what about the bad things? As a lawyer, I have to make sure that the rights of all Muslims in the courts are protected.

Now, as far as the Islamic contract is a civil contract, you’re exactly right--and we’re arguing it is very much like a pre-nuptial agreement. But, because it is put on the paper of an Islamic Center, the court immediately says, "this is a religious document." And we’re trying to say, "No. Enforce the secular provisions"--which is almost everything. But one thing we’re trying to do in Karamah, if God gives us enough energy and time, is to develop a Muslim marriage contract which is not one page like all the Islamic Centers’, but one which will have attached to it an appendix which says "under Islamic law, a mahr means . . ., under Islamic law, deferred means . . .," and then the husband cannot say, "Oh, I went to a French school, I don’t know what mahr means." Plus, you mentioned the deferred part of the mahr. Abu Zahra is very clear about that. Abu Zahra says, "this is a cultural custom." You can defer; you don’t have to defer. You’re absolutely right, but that has been the custom. (Abu Zahra is a modern Egyptian jurist.)

Q: My name is Selime. I am from Turkey. I agree with many things that you (Samira) said; I just picked up on one little sentence. Just to make it clear for others who don’t understand it. You said that the contract of marriage is not a religious contract, and it is a civil contract, therefore a violation of it would not be sinning against God. I know you didn’t mean it; actually, any contract, even if it’s verbal, written or non-written, because God watches all of us all the time, is a violation against God, in that sense. I just wanted to clarify it.

Dr. Al-Hibri: And one more thing, there are a lot of good Muslims who unfortunately end up in divorce and custody.

Q: I am Sharmin Chaudhry, I am from the United States. I have known cases where the marriage took place in the United States, and then after the divorce--it happened to a very close friend of mine--he ran away with the children back to Bangladesh, leaving the wife in the U.S.A. And, in Bangladesh, the child custody goes to the father. And this man has abused the woman, he doesn’t practice Islam, but still, according to the court, because the two boys were older than seven--under Bangladeshi Muslim law, up to seven years the boys will stay with the mother, after that move to the father. How to solve this problem? Islam looks to the best interest of children. How would you approach this issue?

Dr. Al-Hibri: Thank you, because this is one of the points I was going to answer the sister about. Many personal status codes in Muslim countries have an automatic cut off age as to when the child should be with the mother versus the father. You would be surprised at how different these cut off ages are. And in one country, I was told, the mother must continue having custody of her son because she needs a mahram--he never goes to the father, even when he becomes an adult, because she needs a mahram. So, in other words, the juristic interpretation of the various personal status codes--where the cut off period is--is based on a study, a point of view, an analysis of the best interest of the child. And I think we should be clear about where these cut off ages come from, and also be clear in our codes that these cut off ages are not fast and solid. Because, for example, if the mother or the father are not worthy of custody, the court can override these rules.

Q: My name is Jessica Lieberman. I am from New York City, and I work for a Jewish organization that is a network of different Jewish groups that do advocacy. I have learned so much from your presentation; we have similar issues. I have a few questions. One of them is about organizational life--for you working as volunteers or staff people in Muslim organizations. As far as advocates in women’s issues, and status for women in your organizations--do women find it easier, for a myriad of issues, to work in Muslim women’s organizations or in groups that cover issues for both men and women. And the second question is: the Jewish law is so similar, just from what I’ve heard, and there are Jewish women both in Israel and the United States who have these problems, but it doesn’t affect as many of us because for whatever reasons, we are more assimilated, perhaps. So, I wanted to know who this affects. If it affects a lot more Muslim women in America, and can other faiths and ethnic groups help you in your struggle in building a system.

Samer Hathout: The first question was about Muslim women in organizations, whether it’s easier to work in women’s organizations as opposed to men and women. I’ll speak for the Muslim Women’s League. We are a women’s organization--we’re a Muslim women’s organization, and our board is entirely women. And the sole purpose we formed was to deal with women’s issues and to give Muslim women a voice. So, in that regard, I think it’s easier to have an organization that has a very specific purpose. That’s not to say that men can’t work on these issues with us, but the purpose of these organizations is to give Muslim women a voice and to educate people about Islam and women. In terms of who wants to work with whom, I think it varies for different people. Like, I’m with the Muslim Women’s League, which is strictly Muslim women’s issues, but I’m also with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which is societal issues for Muslims in general.

Asifa Quraishi: It depends on the woman, but it also depends on the organization.

Dr. Al-Marayati: Some organizations are less or more inclusive of women in their leadership.

Samer Hathout: And then I also just briefly wanted to answer one of your other questions. You were asking about frequency. It’s so hard to tell the frequency about any of these issues, both for non-Muslims in the United States there are no accurate records, and then for Muslims it’s even harder because there is this horrid taboo about bringing up any of the issues that Muslims deal with. So, we don’t have any databases, we don’t have any accurate records. They are definitely more common than I would like them to be. If one woman is oppressed in the name of Islam, that’s too many. I think it’s common, I don’t know that it is the majority.

Dr. Al-Marayati: We were primarily looking at southern California, and California has the largest population of Muslims in the United States. And so maybe we get a bigger sense of things because we’re dealing with a lot more people. So when you look across the state and you’re dealing with people who deal with problems--we’re talking about problems here--then it may seem larger than it is. But it’s the first few steps in the community to deal with problems.

Dr. Al-Hibri: About your other point--about learning from other groups--yes, of course. For example, the Jewish faith has had a longer history in the United States, and the Jews have developed a much more adequate kutuba for the courts, so that the court understands what they’ve agreed to. Plus, they have arbitration councils, so that if a husband and wife want to divorce, they go in front of a Jewish panel, and not the courts. A Jewish panel that applies Jewish law. And we would like to do the same. We would like an Islamic panel to arbitrate among the husband and wife before we end up in court; but to do that, we have to set up legal structures, and that is why I am asking that we improve our legal understanding of the American system.

Q: I am Farida Mohammed. I am from South Africa. I want to identify with my sisters that we have similar problems because we are also a Muslim minority. But I want to ask: isn’t there a possibility of incorporating Muslim personal law into American law?

Dr. Al-Hibri: The way, for example in Lebanon, Christians have their personal status codes, and Muslims do, and the Jews do? No. Americans don’t have that kind of approach. But there are ways in which the various communities could find themselves freely exercising their religions within the American system. The mechanics are not the same as you would think of in the Muslim countries, but there are mechanics that you can use--as I said, the Jewish faith has been using in the United States, that we could learn from. But it wouldn’t be by saying "let’s introduce Islamic law as part of American law." You could lobby for something you believe in, among all the people, but in a secular fashion.

Q: I am Hanan Siddiqui. I am from London, a women’s organization there. What you’re advocating is through case law to introduce the concept of Muslim law into secular civil law in American law. And that actually does blur the boundaries between religious law and civil law. And the dangers of that is that you are introducing a form of personal law, which means that decisions are made on the basis of people’s religion, rather than on the basis of common rights that people have. You’re trying to use Muslim law to argue for the rights of women. You’re trying to make arguments through the civil courts by using arguments around religion. The same things have happened in Britain. And I deal with women who’ve left husbands who’ve been violent to them. And their husbands have tried to use arguments about religion to deny their rights. So the dangers of your approach is how do you prevent more restrictive interpretations from coming in which deny women’s rights.

Dr. Al-Hibri: But that’s not what I’m advocating. I am only discussing here cases where the American courts themselves found it necessary to consider certain aspects of Islamic law in their deliberation. This is analogous to cases where, for example, a New York court might find it necessary to consider New Jersey law. In such instances, it is important that the New York court does not provide an erroneous interpretation of the New Jersey law. This is where Karamah’s educational role becomes important. By providing proper interpretation we avoid not only a denial of women’s rights but also the proliferation of widely restrictive interpretations.

Dr. Laila Al-Marayati: I see we’ve run out of time. On behalf of all of us, thank you very much for coming this morning, and please feel free to contact the Muslim Women’s League or Karamah for further information. Salamu Alaikum.

Sections of this article:
Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Articles Muslim Matrimonials and More