Muslims must re-think the rigid frame-work for unequal gender roles in the family: Musawah

An important paper, Who provides? Who cares? Changing dynamics in Muslim families, recently published by Musawah (‘Equality’ in Arabic) — a global movement focused on promoting equality and justice in Muslim families – examines economic and parental rights and responsibilities in Muslim families “using the holistic Musawah approach which integrates Islamic teachings, international human rights principles, national guarantees of equality and realities of women’s and men’s lives today”.

Muslim Families
The paper is an outcome of a long-term and multi-faceted project that Musawah has been working on since 2010. The research is founded on the crucial distinction in Muslim legal thought between Shariah and fiqh. Shari‘ah (lit. ‘the way’) in Muslim belief is God’s will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Fiqh (lit. ‘understanding’) is the science of jurisprudence, the process and methodology for discerning and extracting legal rulings from the sacred sources of Islam (the Qur’an and Sunnah – the practice of the Prophet as contained in ahadith  Traditions). Musawah maintains that “fiqh, like any other system of jurisprudence and law, is human, temporal, and local, thus open to change in response to the requirements of time and place”.
The paper argues that the concepts of qiwamah (in a marital relation, husbands protect and provide; in turn wives obey) and wilayah (right and duty of husband or a male member of the family to exercise guardianship rights over dependents, male or female), developed in classical Islamic jurisprudence are no longer universally valid in view of current social and economic reality.  The rule that ‘husbands provide and women obey’ does not work for all families. Despite the changed and changing reality, these two concepts continue to underpin religious discourse on family matters and contemporary family [personal laws]. Among other things, it is these twin notions that are deployed by the ulema who, relying on classical fiqh schools, justify men’s privileged rights to divorce and polygamy, and unequal gendered parental rights and responsibilities.
Clinging on to the ‘husbands provide and wives obey rule’ in a fast-changing world, the paper argues, is harmful for the well-being of families and unfair not only to women but men too. It points to many situations where men are not able to provide for the family while women bear the double burden of contributing financially to the family and at the same time undertake most of the unpaid labour and care giving responsibilities at home. Yet, the husband continues to believe in his right to control his wife. This is unfair to women. But men too are saddled with the physical, mental and sole financial burden of providing for their family. Within this paradigm, men are not expected to share the responsibility domestic labour and of nurturing children.
The paper maintains that “society as a whole would benefit if families were freed from the burden of adhering to a rigid frame-work for gender roles. Connecting the legal structure and the realities of marital and family life can prevent discord, anxieties, and injustice within families, thus strengthening family stability and influencing the broader society. Properly valuing unpaid labour and equalizing household and care-giving work would allow women increased opportunities in the formal economy, which can boost national and regional economies. Encouraging and enabling men and women to parent children equally can enhance children’s physical, intellectual, psychological, and social development”.
In conclusion, the paper recommends that “states, the private sector, communities and NGOs, faith-based leaders, and individuals and families should work collectively and individually to reform Muslim family laws and reshape family relationships in a way that is consistent with the ethical framework in the Qur’an and Islamic teachings and reflects the needs and realities of today’s societies”.
Read the full paper here.



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