Rethinking WLUML’s Analysis: Dossier 19, Sultana Kamal, ‘Mehr: An Advantage or Dependency Reinforced?’
“It may be said that the provision of Mahr may be considered to be beneficiary to women as long as women’s social and economic subordination remains the norm. It is a way of reinforcing, institutionalising and perpetuating women’s dependency on men... It can only be appreciated as an effort to minimise the economic risk of women within marriage in a society where her rights to equality are either systematically denied or violated.”
In 1998, in Dossier 19, Sultana Kamal tackled the topic of Mahr, the Islamic obligation of the groom to provide the bride with money or possessions as a prerequisite to marriage. I will revisit this topic and review the ideas put forward by Kamal in different contexts. Kamal analyzes Mahr within a South Asian framework, but what can be said of it from a Gulf context? Furthermore, how can we as Muslim women assert our rights by understanding the place of Mahr in the Qur’an and Hadith?
While Kamal argues that the Mahr is in reality a price paid for the sexual services of the bride, this argument is fallible. In the wording of Surat An-Nisaa’ of the Qur’an, the Mahr is referred to as a free gift, as in, “And give women their dowries as a free gift” (Qur’an 4:4). This free gift is not a payment for sexual services to the wife; rather it is part of the marriage contract. The marriage contract permits marital, including sexual, relations between the bride and groom, a right which both parties have. Thus, the Mahr payment does not establish men’s sexual rights over women, as Kamal argues. Furthermore, the Mahr is not necessarily a financial payment. The substance of the Mahr is decided upon by the wife in advance and its nature is much more flexible than Kamal suggests. The Mahr can be either a material object, such as money, cattle, or gold, or it can be non-material, such as education, charitable donation, or the memorization of verses of the Qur’an. For instance, a woman of lower economic standing may ask for material possessions to protect her economic security. She might put her Mahr towards investment in the creation of a business, the profits of which become an independent source of income for her; or she can choose to loan her husband money from it, which may allow her greater control within the household.
In my parents’ generation, women did not ask for a hefty Mahr, as the Mahr was seen as a symbolic gift. Some women received Mahrs of gold coins. A friend once told me her mother was promised camels as a Mahr. Ultimately, Mahr is flexible. It can serve different purposes according to each woman’s needs, desires, and circumstances. In the Arabian Gulf, however, the Mahr has developed to serve the patriarchal order and heighten the objectification of women.
In the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, women confront another issue related to Mahr that Kamal’s analysis does not address. While Kamal says that Mahr is problematic because, despite frequent claims to the contrary, it does not truly ‘honour’ women, the concept of ‘honour’ itself has become problematic in the Gulf, especially as it is influenced by capitalist notions of the bride’s worth. In the Gulf, the amount of the Mahr is increasingly perceived as a measurement of the worth of the bride. Mahr demands have become so inflated that it has resulted in widespread indebtedness among young people. In 2011, the Dubai Courts Department, as part of an initiative aimed at encouraging families to ask for reasonable Mahr, paid tribute to the couples with the lowest Mahr to encourage others to ask for reasonable Mahr.
In fact, the conflation of Mahr and worth is contrary to Islamic teaching. When Ali asked Muhammad for his daughter Fatima’s hand in marriage, Muhammad suggested to Ali that he sell his shield for her Mahr, as he did not have the economic means of providing an elaborate Mahr. Although Fatima holds great importance in Islam, her Mahr did not need to reflect this. This prevents men from suffering economic inequality, as they often do today when they are pressured to provide inordinate sums for Mahr. In another hadith, a man wished to wed a woman but had no possessions to offer her as a Mahr, so Muhammad allowed him to offer her memorized verses of the Qur’an as a Mahr. This clearly shows that Mahr in early Islam was not a measurement of the bride’s worth. Rather, it is a ‘free gift’, as stipulated in Surat An-Nisaa’, that is part of the marriage contract, the content and purpose of which is adaptable to the bride’s needs. Women can benefit from this knowledge when trying to manoeuvre between social norms and personal agency in marriage customs.
When looking back at Sultana Kamal’s ‘Mehr: An Advantage or Dependency Reinforced?’ it is evident that her conclusion stating that Mahr reinforces women’s dependency on men is an incomplete conclusion that does not sufficiently acknowledge the multi-layered nature of Mahr. Marriage is conceived as a partnership under Islamic norms, and each spouse owes to the other certain rights, one of which is the Mahr. Mahr is a flexible concept in Islam that accommodates the many backgrounds that women come from. It can act as a form of financial security to women in economically unstable situations. It can act as a symbolic gift. One woman in the UAE asked her husband to sponsor two orphan children as a Mahr. When considering the current trend in extravagant Mahrs in the Gulf countries, Mahr has clearly come to reflect patriarchal and capitalistic ideas, and in turn functions to continually reinforce them. Looking at hadith, this trend in the Gulf is a clear perversion of the concept of Mahr. With an understanding of the concept of Mahr from an Islamic perspective, it is clear that Mahr can serve as a tool that can be utilized by women to better their social standing in their different contexts.
by Dana Ahmad, WLUML intern