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Global life stories: capturing Muslim women's lived realities

The striking disconnect between the juristic and legal constructions of gender roles in Muslim legal tradition and the lived realities of many Muslim women is revealed in Musawah's Global Life Stories project.

Mulki Al-Sharmani Jana Rumminger
6 April 2015

Siti Ruqoyyah’s father ran a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in east Java, Indonesia. She became well versed in Qur’anic recitation and the religious knowledge that her father was imparting to the students. At the age of nine, Siti Ruqoyyah was engaged to be married to the son of a religious scholar who also ran a pesantren. She did not know the meaning of engagement, marriage, husband or in-laws because she was so young.

After her father’s death when she was thirteen, she was sent to live with her uncle. Soon after, the family held a religious marriage ceremony (nikah siri) for her and her fiancé, though the two lived separately for another year. They were married in a religious court. When she asked why she must be married, her mother replied, ‘Your father passed away when he was building a pesantren. And you are a woman, so there is no way you can lead the pesantren. Therefore you should get married so that your husband can take over the pesantren.’ Her age was increased on the marriage certificate to sixteen; her husband was twenty-five at the time.

Thus begins the life story of Siti Ruqoyyah, a forty-three-year-old Indonesian woman whose experiences and the gender-based abuse she suffered in her two marriages sparked in her an interest in seeking gender-sensitive religious knowledge, and imparting this kind of knowledge to other women and their families in Indonesia.

Siti Ruqoyyah is one of 58 women in ten countries (Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, United Kingdom) who shared their life stories through a Global Life Stories Project embarked upon by Musawah in order to understand how women experience qiwamah and wilayah - the two key tenets of Muslim legal tradition that justify male authority over women. Musawah launched the project with the idea that any engagement with Muslim legal tradition must be based on knowledge grounded in the lived realities of women.

In Musawah’s attempt to better understand and propose alternative ways to look at qiwamah and wilayah, we chose to adopt an integrated approach towards building knowledge. This includes seeking multi-layered knowledge in which the theoretical is organically linked to the lived realities of women, and using a participatory and reflective process in which conventional authoritative forms of knowledge (e.g. text-based or academic and theoretical) are not privileged over insights and understandings that ordinary women build through their life experiences, and that non-specialists forge through reflective learning and engagement with Muslim legal tradition. An integrated participatory process provides a rich way to understand the complex and dynamic relationships between normative Muslim texts and everyday life contexts on the ground. It is consistent with both Islamic ethics of justice, humility, and reflective learning, and with the principles of an ethical feminist inquiry - namely trust, care, reciprocity, reflexivity, and enabling positive change.

Building knowledge; building the movement

The Global Life Stories Project had two broad aims. The first was seeking knowledge about how Muslim women from different walks of life in selected countries experience male authority and guardianship (or lack thereof); how the social and legal manifestations of qiwamah and wilayah influence their choices and life trajectories; and how the ways in which women’s experiences depart from these norms and laws, and the consequences and implications of such divergences.

The second aim was to enable, partake in, and capture an ongoing evolving collective process of building critical understandings and knowledge of qiwamah and wilayah on multiple levels. This took place through reflective interactions between the women who shared their life stories and the country teams participating in the research; collaborative discussions between country teams and other relevant actors in their national contexts (such as religious scholars, activists, policy makers, and lawyers); engagement among the country teams and the project coordinator on how to make sense of the resource persons’ stories in light of textual/legal understandings of qiwamah and wilayah and vice versa; and a series of workshops that brought together country teams, the Musawah Knowledge Building Working Group, and chapter authors of Men in Charge?

The project began in 2011 with a team of five Indonesian women who initiated a pilot study to build knowledge grounded in lived realities, paying attention to the process just as much as the outcome. In early 2012, teams from the ten countries joined in the process. Over the subsequent three years, the Musawah Knowledge Building Working Group and the ten country teams worked collectively through workshops and regular Skype meetings to develop and implement the project. Country team members represent a variety of disciplines (Islamic studies, anthropology, law, literature, agriculture, development studies, gender studies) and occupations (academia, women’s rights and advocacy, international development, education, family law, human rights).

The fifty eight women who shared their stories come from different regions in the participating countries, from both urban and rural backgrounds. Their education levels range from no schooling, to little schooling, to university graduates. Most are economically active in diverse kinds of work (street vendor, farmer, domestic worker, migrant domestic worker, taxi driver, paralegal, teacher, administrator, community development worker, business woman, village head, politician, singer, journalist, etc.). Our goal was not to undertake a statistically representative study, but rather to privilege the process of inquiry, the development of a new kind of methodology, and a collective effort of reflective knowledge production.

The women’s stories, experiences, and insights are valuable resources for both national and global movements for equality and justice. We thus recognize and refer to the women who shared their stories as ‘resource persons’.

In the analysis of life stories, which we chose to document in their entirety, we were interested in capturing how the resource persons made sense of their experiences, and in particular the changes in their senses of self. We tried to identify patterns, interpretations, norms, laws and/or power structures that were traceable to the concepts of qiwamah and wilayah. We also looked at whether actual life experiences departed from the construction of gender roles, relations and rights as prescribed by the juristic qiwamah and wilayah-based gender regimes. Where such divergences were found, we wanted to understand their determinants and their consequences.

Main findings: tensions and contradictions                     

The stories and analysis from this project obviously do not represent the experiences of all Muslim women across all countries and contexts; this would not be possible even in more extensive studies because of the diversity of individuals, families, contexts, practices and laws. But key findings bring insight into how qiwamah and wilayah function in the lived realities of these women.

In many of the studied contexts women and men do not live according to the gender roles prescribed by the concepts of qiwamah and wilayah. Women (whether wives or single daughters) are either the main providers or play central economic roles in their families. This is especially true of poor resource persons. Fathers are unable to provide, do not earn enough, or are deceased. Husbands are absent, unable to earn an income, or unwilling to provide. But state laws and social norms by and large still sustain the ideology of the authority of the male guardian over the female ward and the husband over the wife, along with the unequal rights inherent in these relationships. The consequence is often misery for both women and men. Women suffer injustice because they do not receive the maintenance or protection promised by this patriarchal structure, and they continue to experience the inequalities arising from this hierarchical model of gender roles and its underlying assumptions about women and men’s identities. Men feel torn between the need for their wives’ financial contribution, and their sense of failure and inadequacy because of their inability to fulfill the role of the provider.

We see this problem manifested in different life stories: the journalist from Bangladesh who suffered sexual and emotional negligence from her husband, whose inability to hold a job and provide for his wife affected his sense of masculinity; the female taxi driver in Egypt who experienced spousal violence in her two marriages because of the husbands’ inability to provide  (and attendant stresses) and their ambivalence about the wife’s much needed economic role in the relationship; the resource person from Indonesia who serves as the main provider in the family and bought the conjugal home with her income, but could not claim it at the time of divorce since the deed was written in the husband’s name (as a way of saving his face and maintaining the façade of the husband/provider in the family and community).

In some life stories, experiences of suffering and injustice are often more about factors such as class and culture than religiously-based concepts or laws, and the resource persons do not necessarily draw on religious terms to talk about these problems or their solutions. But these stories can still be informative about religious-based understandings of male authority and their underlying assumptions. They shed light on the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization in the lives of women, and they show how the convergences and overlap between these various kinds of marginalization amplify the injustices arising from the continuing hegemony of the qiwamah and wilayah-based model of gender roles in the family.

For example, poverty and deprivation of basic citizenship rights such as education and employment force Nigerian families in the Northern part of the country to marry off their daughters at very young ages. These child marriages are made possible through male guardians’ exercise of wilayah over their dependent female wards. Yet these same minor brides do not benefit from the protection and financial sustenance that they are entitled to from their guardians, as they are often obliged to work both before and after marriage to assist their families. These girls may find themselves in unhappy marriages to older polygamous men who either do not provide for them, abandon them, or expose them to abuse. This point underscores that injustice and marginalization of Muslim women are certainly not reducible to singular juristic concepts such as wilayah or their legal manifestations, but they can be exacerbated by the overlap between religion-based laws and other structures of inequality in these women’s lives.

By capturing the processes through which some resource persons make sense of their life experiences and their engagement with structures of normative authority, we gain insight into why juristic and legal constructions of fixed and hierarchical gender roles and rights do not work for women – both ethically and practically. We see this in the long and agonizing process of resource persons in abusive marriage relationships, for example from Canada and Indonesia, grappling with the notion that sexual relations with their spouses are a religious duty incumbent on them. We also see it in resource persons who voice discomfort over the incongruence between their understanding of Qur’anic justice and the dominant religious and social norms related to gender in their contexts. These stories shed light on the more theoretical arguments made by authors of Men in Charge? about the disconnect between Muslim legal tradition and key Quranic theological and ethical principles that are the guiding framework for human–God and human and human relations.

We also note that resource persons traversed different pathways and reached different outcomes in terms of their reflection, religious learning, and attempts to respond to their encounters with the normative authority and dominant knowledge tradition that governs their worlds and gender rights. For some, their struggles and reflection led to a literalist, rigid, and absolutist approach to Islam. For others, like Siti Ruqoyyah from Indonesia, it led to an egalitarian reform-oriented approach to their religious tradition and more active engagement with the normative systems shaping their family relations and gender roles and rights. Analysing these differences in outcomes across contexts is complex, but  observation demonstrates that the resources persons themselves – despite or because of their struggles – are making choices and taking actions to control and claim agency over their lives. 

The process of collecting the life stories has ended. The data require more in-depth analysis and the stories will be shared more widely. Country teams have been linking their findings and the relationships they’ve built to specific activities and advocacy goals in their national contexts, and Musawah is using the findings to better understand qiwamah and wilayah and in its international advocacy and capacity building activities.

In the meantime, two central ideas invite further reflection. First, these life stories are important because they provide insights into layered knowledge that is grounded in lived realities. Second, the methodological goal of engaging in an inclusive, participatory and ethically-guided knowledge building process is equally important, for such a process can become an integral part of building a movement for equality and justice in Muslim families. In the course of this process, all who have taken part have been learning and hence growing: learning about the lived realities of women in different contexts; about Muslim legal tradition and modern family laws; about Muslim feminist hermeneutical knowledge; and about ourselves and how we understand and relate to dominant structures of knowledge and norms in our lives. We are building reflective and participatory knowledge; we are building solidarity; we are building a new kind of movement.

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