How to avoid some pitfalls in marriage
Recently I was talking to my old friend Lily from Wayne State and she mentioned to me that she and her boyfriend were breaking up. In hearing her story, I was so impressed by how US law protected her as a non-married woman. In their final argument, her now ex took her cell phone from her and smashed it, then he took her laptop and smashed it. When she called the police, he was immediately arrested and put in jail, charged with two counts of destruction of private property. He was facing ten years in prison. She took pity on him and dropped the charges on the condition that he leave the country. She was the owner of the house where they both lived, so earlier on, when he had started becoming violent with her, the police simply removed him from her house like an unwelcome guest.
What if they had been married co-owners of the house? It would be upon the wife to prove to the police that her husband had been intimidating or hurting her. If she was hysterical and he was acting calm, or if he claimed that she was the one attacking him, the police might even side with him. Unless she was gushing blood, the police probably wouldn't do much of anything. At best, they might offer to give the wife a ride to a women's shelter, whereupon she would give up her practical use of the house if she didn't return to her husband. That is so frightening.
My other friend Anya's husband never beat her but he did have a habit of using her credit card without her permission, running up thousands of dollars in debt and promising to pay her back someday. She was stuck with all his credit card charges in the divorce as it was considered “marital debt.” Her lawyer told her that legally, she was responsible for having married the guy and therefore could not demand repayment. In fact, she could be held responsible for paying half of all his debts, even though she was a destitute housewife!
Essentially, Anya was taken for over $10,000 by her man and because he was her husband he got away with it. But Lily's boyfriend faced ten years in prison for putting her out of less than $1000. In fact, the computer company took pity on her situation and replaced her computer for free! Even a year after Anya paid $15,000 to divorce her husband, he's still living in the house that she was forced out of, whose mortgage is in her name and she cannot get him to move out because he is co-owner.
So what's the answer? Don't get married? Legally, a man is required to pay child support whether he was married legally to the mother or not. The only practical reasons that I can think of to get legally married is for immigration purposes, because the cost of marriage far outweighs the personal cost of health insurance or any savings due to jointly filed taxes for most individuals.
A lot of Muslims actually do choose to skip the civil marriage document and have a religious marriage instead. Given the reality of the inadequacy of married women's rights in this country, how can Muslim women protect themselves using Shariah when they get married, especially with the many examples of abuse of Shariah in some countries?
One Islamic law that works well for women in the west is that the wife's money is kept separate. She is free to contribute to the household, but her husband is not free to access her money or her accounts. I would take that a step further and advise married couples never, ever to co-sign on a loan.
For her dowry, the bride can require her husband to buy her a house and put it entirely in her name. But be wise: a divorced housewife doesn't necessarily want to be stuck with suddenly having to pay a mortgage. Think this through in advance. Some Muslim brides ask for a car. Either of these purchases would give a future abused wife the practical and legal power to physically separate herself from her husband while minimizing court battles. In the event of a happy marriage, there is no harm done.
A very important thing no bride to be should overlook is the power of the prenuptial agreement. If it were my daughter, the one thing I would definitely want included would be the right of the wife to initiate divorce for any reason just like a man. Islam gives this right to women if they would ask for it. Marriage is ideally a mutual agreement based on the free will of both parties. There should be no coercion involved. Both parties should want to be together. No woman should be put in the position of having to “prove” that her husband is impotent or that he has a mental illness he refuses to get help for.
If a couple has signed a prenuptial agreement, that contract can be enforced under US law. Not because it is Shariah but because it is a legally binding contract. Unfortunately, a married woman in the US has to separate from her husband before she can take him to court for support as she should be able to under Shariah law (in theory) while remaining with him. It would be interesting to find out if an Islamically married woman has ever forced her husband to pay the dowry he promised her using any western legal system. If anyone has any examples please let me know, I would be fascinated.
Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer. Please feel free to comment at karinfriedemann.blogspot.com