An Application of Religious Traditions and Islamic Family Law in My Family and Community

Rights and equality in Islam are interpreted based on different social duties and obligations between men and women. In Islam the family unit is often emphasized, asking individual men, women, sons, and daughters to sacrifice some of their rights and freedom in order to serve the good of the greater family and religion. This is exemplified in Islamic family law and religious tradition, which provides justice to women in some aspects but not in others.

Based on experiences with my own family and community—the Chrang Chamres village—I explore how Islamic family law and religious traditions impact women. The community, eight kilometers away from the capital city Phnom Penh, is home to thousands of Cham Muslims, who make up the majority of the population in the area. The people are Sunnis and followers of Shafi’i and Hanafi schools. We do not have any Islamic court. Disputes can be solved within the family or with the community, mufti, or at civil court. I will focus on several main components of the family law—marriage, divorce, inheritance, and motherhood—to explore how some aspects of religious traditions have changed over time within the Muslim community in Cambodia. I must stress that our practice might be different from other places.

Marriage is central to Islamic family law, and therefore it is important to understand who makes decisions about matching couples. Under the institution of marriage in the village, in past decades men had more choice than women in choosing whom to marry, while women were supposed to accept arranged marriage or forced marriage. This is, however, a cultural practice, and actually against the Islamic principle that the two people should consent. During the wedding, only a male relative (father, uncle, or male sibling, depending on their availability) is considered competent to accept the marriage proposal or preside over qabul (acceptance). The practice is meant to uphold parents’ authority over their offspring, including whomever they pick as spouses for them, especially for their daughter. As an example, my mother’s first husband was arranged by her parents in 1970, a very common practice for both Muslim and non-Muslim communities at that time. The groom was a Lon Nol soldier and an aristocrat.[1] Her father witnessed the qabul

In terms of inheritance after death, widows and children have certain rights within Islamic family law, but issues of gender matter. Inheritance is particularly controversial because inequality between men and women is explicit and materialized. While a male guardian receives two-thirds of the overall wealth of the family, a female can only get one-third of the overall wealth (Qur’an 4:11-13). The justification is that married men are responsible for all the expenses for women and children in their home. Men have to give up one-third to women for the dower. Therefore one could say, “Women too get two-thirds (one-third by ownership; one-third as beneficiary of men [their right to maintenance and dower]).”[2] In my experience, the practice varies from family to family. My uncle’s son received two-thirds of the wealth and the daughter had only one-third because the family felt that their son needed that much to start his own family. My mother thought differently, however. She plans to divide the wealth into four equal shares for her children. She believes that this will be just. 

Motherhood is another important aspect covered under Islamic law. Women are encouraged to become mothers for several reasons: procreation, guidance, and family happiness. By fulfilling this duty, they will be revered by their children and rewarded by God (Qur'an 4:1). Some women do not want to bear or raise children, but they are expected to do so to ensure family happiness. My mother had this expectation for me, arranging an engagement for me with my distant relative when I was 20 years old. She said, “As a woman you should get married, obey your husband, and have children. If you wait too long to get pregnant it is not good. First, it is hard for you to bear a child. Second, that is not rewarded by God.” However, I did not want to get married, because I wanted to continue my studies and be economically independent. I declined the engagement and my mother respected this. My fiancé’s family withdrew the proposal.

There have been some changes and continuity in the application of family law and religious traditions in my home region of Cambodia over the past few decades. From my perspective, the practice of forced marriage has dropped dramatically and arranged marriage has decreased significantly in my community. As these decrease, the practice of love marriage has increased remarkably, and in my opinion, the trend will continue. For instance, more young people dare to inform their parents that they love someone and want to arrange marriage with that person. Another unprecedented phenomenon is that more and more young women are divorcing their husbands after a short-lived marriage. At least three of my female neighbors divorced their husbands for various reasons such as conflict between the bride’s family and groom’s family or discord within the couple’s relationship. The divorced couples no longer follow the nominal ceremony when they want to remarry. The concept of motherhood has also changed significantly. Many women in my community feel that marriage and motherhood is a choice and not an obligation; they don’t want to get married or don’t want to bear a child. Education and technology have contributed to many of these changes. Inheritance, however, has not changed very much. Decisions depend on real circumstances and what is deemed to be “good” for family members.

Family laws and traditions change over time. For Islamic family law, it is important to understand the difference between the law and its application, as well as changes over time. Future research should look into the extent to which family law and religious tradition evolve and change in practice. How do economics, education, technology, appeals for human rights, and Islamic feminist movements affect change in the application of Islamic family law? 

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[1] He disappeared in 1973 and was most likely dead. My father proposed to my mother in 1978, and they got married under the Khmer Rouge. The wedding was joined by over a dozen of other couples.
[2] Mohsen Kadivar, “Revisiting Women’s Rights in Islam: ‘Egalitarian Justice’ in Lieu of ‘Desert Based Justice’” in Gender and Equality in Muslim Family Law: Justice and Ethics in the Islamic Legal Traditions (eds). Ziba Mir-Hosseini et al. pp. 214-235. Palgrave Macmillan (New York: 2013), 220. http://www.al-islam.org/articles/concept-polygamy-and-prophets-marriages-sayyid-muhammad-rizvi (accessed April 18, 2014).

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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