Marriage and Gender Roles in Islam

A still from designer Ali Xeeshan’s controversial Bridal couture campaign advertisement

MARRIAGE is an institution of sanctity, responsibility and of foremost importance as a social institution in the scheme of things in Islamic cosmology. Islam didn’t only discourage the Christian ideal of celibacy but the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) condemned it strongly by his teachings and practice. It is reported from the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) that “Marriage is part of my sunnah, and whoever does not follow my sunnah has nothing to do with me.” This vivid and explicit emphasis on the practice of marriage in such strong words only works to highlight the importance that Islam attaches to the marriage and affairs revolving in its orbit. This thrust that Islam places on marriage is not without a reason and rhyme, but is rather rooted in the Islamic doctrine that marriage and therefore the family that arises out of this practise forms the foundation of society and governs modalities of social structure, their functional optimization, and guarantees the long term stability and sustainability of the same. Marriage is not seen merely a means of gratification of the needs and necessitates arising out of man’s biological composure, but is more importantly identified as an institution and structure ensuring proper and desired upbringing of children so as to render them into paragons of individual virtue and social functionality. Though the context has been laid down in Islamic matrix, but that shall not limit the nature and scope of what we explore hereunder, for these preliminary observations hold universal merit and apply equally to all human conditions and societies across religious and cultural divide.

The longstanding and evergreen tenure of relations, phenomenon and institutions is ensured by their commitment to their spirit and the central axis around which they revolve. Any deviation there-from, not only leads to their self-disintegration, but causes damage and deterioration of peripheral phenomenon revolving in their orbit. Marriage, an institution of such social foregrounding has not only succumbed to parochial social moors, but has also metamorphosed into institution of mechanical recurrence without any commitment to the spirit, the attendant responsibilities and sensibilities thereof. What are those attendant responsibilities and sensitivities referred hereto? Primarily social bindings, irrelevant and burdensome cultural obligations have turned instant of solemnization of marriage into such a lavish and spendthrift affair that most of the people feel disqualified to be initiated to this very pious and socially indispensable act. The “externalities” and unnecessary practices in the form of dowry, serving sumptuous lunch to massive gathering and such takes such a central-stage in marriage that the very essence of it is lost under the debris of social constructions. Let it also be pinned that these constructions aren’t an evil in their essence, but the problem has cropped because these otherwise legit norms have been stretched too much beyond their normal and desirable range and scale of operation, thereby marring their spirit and turning them into social abscesses of unmanageable order.

With distortion in the meta-structure of marriage as an institution, no wonder that gender roles which marriage confers upon spouses have inadvertently and inevitably suffered perversion and unassuming stalemate. Are gender roles, as they play out in our society, written on some stone? Do they have some eternal permanence guaranteed by some divine agency or are these gender roles mere human constructions, rather faulty constructions that have went on to assume quasi-divine character. Are these gender roles where woman is assigned household chores and made to do all manual work at home and man is seen as bread earner and his role deemed market oriented true and absolute, in consonance with religious teachings and social dynamics or do they subvert the essence of religion and society? Does Islam foster these parochial practices which enhance suppression of women and construct gender roles that augment domestic and structural violence against women and assign them roles undesired and uncalled for. A survey of Islamic doctrine and praxis, historically and as mediated by the text reveals facts contrary to common perception and brings forth not only equality guaranteed therein but also highlights the liberating  spirit thereof. In the Islamic narrative, equality between the sexes is affirmed from the point of creation, with humanity originating from a single man and a single woman: “People, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.

Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you.”People are granted the highest form of equality—spiritual equality—such that there is no difference among them on account of their sex, race, or social status. Men and women, treated primarily as humans, are recognized as complete beings with the responsibility to fulfil their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs, duties, and potential, while keeping their higher purpose in life at the core of their personal and communal vision. Human flourishing, above and beyond gender roles, in this life and the hereafter, is the language that is adopted in the Quranic narrative. Marriage is regarded as an aspect of the Islamic faith that should be fulfilled with various benefits to the individuals involved (i.e., earthly and heavenly). Central is the custom that a groom provides a dowry (sum of money) to the bride or her family prior to marriage as a sign of commitment to the family. This dowry varies with cultures and traditions but is fairly universal in practice. Wives should expect to be supported by their husbands financially and are not expected to work outside of the home. This is what has been mediated through the historical experience of Muslim societies and the exigencies of temporal necessities.

In the wake of changing social dynamics, the interpretative exercise has been re-invoked and possibilities have been explored to revisit and reconceptualise gender roles. In this connection, the precedents found within the holy life of Prophet of Islam (SAW) itself leaves open wide spectrum of possibilities to re-imagine and reconstitute gender roles. The holy life of Prophet (SAW), his conduct in family as husband, and the instructions he issued to his companions pertaining to marital affairs and gender roles provides kaleidoscopic vision into the workings of gender dynamics and gender roles in Islam. Ideally and at least in doctrinal aspect, Islam doesn’t envisage wife as maid, as cook and doesn’t place on him the legal responsibility of child rearing. Wife, on the other hand, discharges these roles and keeps herself attentive to these calls in the spirit of ethical imperative, not a legal binding. Islam leaves open the space to women to actively engage in public life, in official and business roles, roles that don’t compromise the chastity of women and provides proper opportunities to safeguard her modesty while at the same time providing her with possibilities to explore and realize her potential to the fullest. On same note, Islam doesn’t freeze man in the privileged frame of “market man”, bestowed with liberties and perks, but binds him to filial ties and responsibilities, besides prompting and luring him to help his wife in chores without letting the exercise touch his male ego – this is what the character and practice of Prophet (PBUH) was. But the intersection of cultural norms of the liberating and equating spirit of Islam has more than often tended to disturb the equation and repeatedly the pendulum has swung in the direction of men, encouraging them to perpetrate chauvinism and gender asymmetry. It is only in recalling the true teachings of religion and Prophetic praxis that one can see this problem dissipating in the light of solution.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Amir Suhail Wani

The author is a writer and columnist

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