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American Muslim women assert rights in Islamic marriage contracts

Published August 26, 2006

NEW YORK - Should anything go wrong in her marriage, Zaynab Abdul-Razacq is confident her rights will be well-protected. Her husband has guaranteed it - in writing.

The young Muslim couple chose a path advocated by Islamic scholars concerned about women's rights: drawing up a Muslim marriage contract that takes into account modern needs.

Abdul-Razacq's agreement states that she is in charge of the household finances and that if her husband abuses her in "any dimension of wellness," she can automatically divorce him. He stipulated that he could make household decisions without interference from in-laws and other relatives.

"At the outset, we agreed these are things that are pretty important to us," said Abdul-Razacq, 29, who lives in Decatur, Ga., and married three years ago.

The contract has long been a Muslim tradition. Most, however, contain just one key provision, that of the "mahr," a gift usually of money, that the man gives the woman.

Islamic law experts who advocate for better treatment for women say the documents can help them assert rights under religious law that have long been played down by men.

Advocates contend their approach is well within Islamic law, even though skeptics say the interpretation is too influenced by Western thinking.

The contract is especially useful in the United States, where Muslims come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and follow different customs and levels of observance.

Karamah, an organization of Muslim women lawyers based in Washington, is developing a "model" marriage contract that can be adjusted to meet the requirements of family law in different parts of the country, said Azizah al-Hibri, a founder of the group.

In the United States, civil law governs divorce, but judges have taken Muslim marriage contracts into consideration.

Al-Hibri, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said the contracts also help couples prepare for the challenges of married life.

"Couples need to define their relationship as they enter the marriage, so that they do not get disillusioned later," al-Hibri said.

It's generally accepted that Islamic law gives women the right to property and financial independence within marriage. Some Muslim scholars contend women are not even obligated to do housework. These and other details can be specified in the contract.

Negotiating the agreement "brings an air of reality and rationality to a process that is often fraught with emotion," said Aminah McCloud, professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. McCloud's own marriage contract says that her husband must accompany her when she travels and that she is not obligated to cook.

Much of the negotiation involves the "mahr," whose dollar value ranges widely.

Some Muslim women consider the gift archaic in an age when women can earn their own salaries. Others view it as a symbol that the man values the woman.

Beyond the "mahr," the marriage contract can help address concerns about certain practices allowed in Islam, even if the behavior is forbidden by U.S. civil law.

For example, polygamy is illegal in the United States, but some conservative Muslims interpret their religion as allowing a man to marry up to four women. Many Muslim brides stipulate an automatic right to divorce if the man takes another wife.

McCloud acknowledges the limits of the document in trying to preserve equality in such an unpredictable undertaking as marriage. But she said the contract does provide some protection if a union fails.

"But at least you have written down and witnessed something so that when you go to court to get them, you can get them," McCloud said.

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:27:57]

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