“Paradise Lies at the Feet of the Mother”: Muslim Women’s Rights, Gender Roles, and Philippine Laws

The Philippine government promulgated the Code of Muslim Personal Laws (CMPL/Presidential Decree 1083) in 1977 as part of its efforts to address Muslim marginalization. Essentially, the code strengthens the position of the man as head of the family and as authority figure. Interestingly, this occurred at a time when women of the Philippines were agitating for women’s rights and increased roles in the public space and several Muslim women functioned as heads of households. Muslim women in the Philippines continue to live under the CMPL today, but also within a country that ranks first in gender equality in Asia and the Pacific and fifth globally in 2013.[1] 

The CMPL, which is applicable only to Muslims, formalizes, reinforces, and legitimizes practices in the Qur’an, some of which have been observed in Muslim areas of the country since pre-colonial times and after, even if such practices were not sanctioned by Philippine laws.[2] The CMPL deals with marriage, divorce, guardianship of persons, and inheritance while touching on the status and rights of women. It also provides for the establishment of sharia courts to adjudicate the cases. 

The Philippine government intended the CMPL to uphold the Philippine constitution’s provision on considering the “customs, traditions, beliefs, and interests of the national cultural communities in the formulation and implementation of state policies” (Sec.11, Art. XV Philippine Constitution 1986). In doing so, however, the government legitimized traditions and practices that limit the rights of women in contrast to other Philippine laws that seek to guarantee gender equality, protect women’s rights, and empower women.[3] 

My continuing discussions with Muslim women in the Philippines post-1977 show that while some are aware that the code exists, most are unaware of its specific provisions. There is a consensus among the women I have interviewed, from born Muslims to Balik-Islam[4], that the Qur’an and hadith are their primary sources informing them of their roles (although their knowledge of specific Qur’anic provisions remains vague). Of the eight women converts I interviewed who belong to the Islamic Studies Call and Guidance (ISCAG) group, only two said that they read the Qur’an. However, all eight women attend weekly meetings where imams explain provisions of the Qur’an on women’s roles. Their knowledge of the Qur’an therefore is mediated through the imam’s interpretations and definitions of what it means to be a Muslim woman. 

Ruqayya[5] said that when she was a Catholic, she “did not know the importance of being a woman” but since conversion, she has learned that “a woman should really take care of the children for the husband.” More than once, the ISCAG women talked about how “paradise lies at the feet of the mother”; based on this, they felt the need to be always conscious of their responsibilities, because on judgment day, Allah will ask how they dealt with their roles as wives and mothers, including how they took care of resources given to them by their husbands.

The ISCAG women’s understanding of their roles and rights synchronize with the CMPL, possibly as a result of their weekly meetings and materials circulated in their gated community on women’s roles. They affirm the husband’s role as head of the household and primary decision maker even if their husbands are all overseas workers in the Middle East. Family decisions are deferred to the husbands because, as Sadiqah[6] emphasized, “in Islam, men make the decisions.” Although physically absent from the household, the husbands are always accessible by phone and text messaging. 

The CMPL provisions on marriage are applicable to those whose marriage was solemnized in accordance to this code, but considering that Muslim women in the Philippines are also Filipinos, do they have the option to choose which law should apply to them? Article 3 of the CMPL provides that “in case of conflict between any provision of this Code and laws of general application, the former shall prevail,” giving primacy to the CMPL over such laws as the Magna Carta for Women and the Family Code for Muslims.

A prominent case that involved the CMPL and the Family Code is that of Sabrina Artadi[7], whose petition for divorce from her Saudi Arabian husband took twelve years through the sharia courts and finally the Supreme Court. CMPL, however, allows a husband to divorce the wife simply through repudiation, and then requires him to register the divorce with the sharia court. Artadi’s petition for custody of the children also went from the sharia courts all the way to the Supreme Court, which applied civil law for the benefit of the children and granted Artadi custody. It is interesting to note that in Artadi’s petition for custody of the children (she was the one caring for and financially supporting the children throughout the marriage), the sharia circuit court said she “failed to observe what is expected of a married woman and mother by the society [sic] she lives” but stated that the husband was capable of taking care of the children simply on the basis of his testimony alone. Artadi is an educated woman, aware of the provisions of both the CMPL and other laws, with resources that allowed her to pursue the cases through in the sharia and civil courts. But what happens to the ordinary Muslim woman who is unaware of her rights and who does not have the resources to file and pursue a case? 

Almost 40 years since the CMPL began, more Muslim women are participating in national politics and getting involved in non-government organizations that promote gender equity. Some are involved in promoting the provisions of the CEDAW, advocating the recently passed Reproductive Health law (RA10354), and participating in international discourses on women’s rights. Changes are also affecting families as more Filipino women (Muslims and others) have become overseas workers, with many in the Middle East where they are exposed to Islam in ways never seen in their home country. In light of these changes, Muslim women are seen moving in one of two directions: 1) seeking education, becoming increasingly involved in the public square and becoming aware of their rights under women-friendly laws; or 2) drawing into private spaces to focus on primary roles of wife and mother. The reception of the CMPL laws and their effects has not been given adequate study, and it is now time to assess how they impact the lives of Muslim women. The CMPL needs to be reviewed as it could further marginalize Muslim women in a country that is actively promoting gender equality.

[1] World Economic Forum.“Global Gender Gap Report 2013.”http://www.weforum.org/issues/global-gender-gap

[2] Article 78 of the Philippine Civil Code (RA 394) allowed non-Christian marriages to be performed according to their customs and practices. This provision expired in 1970 but was extended by the president of the Philippines until 1980. Divorce and polygamy, however, were not legal.

[3] These laws include Women in Development and Nation Building, (RA 9710, also known as the Magna Carta for Women or MCW), Family Code of the Philippines (Executive Order No. 207, 227), and Anti-violence Against Women and Children Act (RA 9262). The Philippine government also ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). 

[4] Balik-Islam means “return to Islam.” This is a term used for converts, meaning those who have returned to the folds of Islam. This is based on their belief that Islam is the first religion of man and the fact that Islam is the pre-colonial religion of Filipinos until the Spaniards imposed Christianity.

[5] Name changed to protect her privacy. 

[6] Name changed to protect her privacy.

[7] Sabrina Artadi Bondagjy v. Fouzi Ali Bondagjy, G.R. No. 140817 December 2001; Fouziy Ali Bondagjy v. Sabrina Artadi. G. R. No. 170406 August 11, 2008 .

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.

comments powered by Disqus
back to top