One of the most controversial issues about Islam is the topic of Marriage and Divorce. Even though Christianity demands the same thing, most Westerners recoil at the idea of a wife being obligated to “obey” her husband. In real life, what does this look like? Maybe a man might say to his wife, “Honey, could you bake some of your awesome lasagna for my parents when they visit?” and the woman might say, “Sure, sweetie, no problem. Just give me the money to buy the ingredients and I’ll be on it today.”
In most cases, especially when she is sure that she is loved, a woman will not hesitate to do whatever her husband asked her to do. Hopefully, if she asked her husband to pick up some postage stamps on the way home from work he would do it too.
Legally the issue regarding “obedience” is most likely to arise when it comes to physical relations. Legal systems vary widely when it comes to whether a woman has the right to insist on engaging in or refusing intercourse of her own free will and the extent to which her husband has the right to demand this of her. In Islam, a man has the right to expect to be loved, however, it is usually unclear how far he can go to force love to happen. Women of course also have the right to expect to be loved, however, it is nearly impossible to force her husband to please her if he cannot, for biological reasons.
The other biological issue is of course, children. When a woman has young children or is pregnant, it is very difficult to achieve financial independence without the assistance of the children’s father. Under normal circumstances, children cling to their mother. She cannot come and go as she pleases, unless someone else would help her with the children. She cannot study in college or work a job unless someone, normally her spouse, would help her. She cannot even run to the grocery store alone unless her husband decides that he is willing to allow her to get some air. Most women who succeed in their careers either have no children, or else have extremely helpful husbands.
Sadly, in today’s world, there are few men who possess the emotional maturity to be worthy to tell another human soul to obey him. Islam of course commands kindness to women, but in reality this means a man must care about someone else as much as he cares about himself. Girls are usually trained from birth to try to be pleasing and avoid displeasing others. They try to predict the needs of others in order to be helpful. This puts them at a disadvantage in a relationship where this level of attentiveness is not reciprocated. When girls and women are deprived of affection, their normal response is to try harder to be pleasing. Men however tend to withhold affection when they feel that they are being deprived of affection. This often creates a vicious cycle that could result in divorce. When it comes to divorce, the Quran states:
“…And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable, but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is exalted in Power, Wise.” (2:28)
Aminah Wadud-Muhsin writes that this “degree of advantage” is in the man’s power to pronounce divorce by themselves, whereas women who seek divorce generally need some outside assistance. Yusuf Ali suggests that economic differences are what largely disadvantages adult females. Islam allows women to divorce a man without contest in the cases of mental illness, impotence, or not supporting the family, but as always, it’s his word against hers and in most cases, she is the primary caretaker of the children.
In many countries, including the US, women are often threatened with loss of custody of their children if they try to divorce their husbands. Islamic law also grants custody of the children to their father as a general rule. Originally, this law was perhaps intended to help divorced women remarry more quickly but nowadays, most men are not equipped to assume full time ownership of any youngsters by themselves. We don’t live in a time where people are surrounded by extended family, with someone guaranteed to be home at all times. Divorce is so complicated that it is often wise to consider reconciliation.
“…live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” (4:19)
In my middle age, I have discovered that the qualities that others find most controversial are my best qualities. If I obey those who dislike me, I am doomed to defeat. It is only when you embrace your true self that you can succeed in life, married or not.
This brings us back to the Golden Rule. Jesus (sa) said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” while Prophet (s) said, “Do not do to someone else what you would not like done to you.” Empathy is key. When a man and woman marry, they have no idea what they are getting into. The person you are today is not the same person you will be in ten or twenty years. Sometimes people put out a lot of mixed messages about what they want from the other. To make things work, you have to care about the other person as much as you care about yourself. If he cannot sleep, she cannot sleep. If she has a splinter in her thumb, he will remove it for her. If your spouse displeases you, ask him or her, “Why did you do that?” That is love.