Trading in The Obedient Wife for the Respectful Marriage
Mainstream and social media has exploded with reports of the Obedient Wives Club, a Malay Muslim organization that seeks to fight social ills, especially domestic abuse and infidelity, by embracing concepts we often associate with the Stepford Wife: to obey one's husband, entertain him, dress up for him, and provide good sex as a spousal duty.
Photo by graciehagen.
While the tenets are not in and of themselves entirely unreasonable, critics worry that they create an imbalance in relationships, potentially perpetuating the ignorance of Muslim women's rights and their ability to exercise them. What’s more, the idea that being obedient, entertaining, alluring and sexually satisfying will rid the world of domestic abuse and infidelity perpetuates victim blame. After all, infidelity and abuse do not only happen to disobedient wives who don't put out, and the reinforcement that abuse or neglect is a woman's fault makes coming forward all the more difficult.
The group's tenets are thus hugely problematic, and have, unsurprisingly, led to much discourse around the web about gender equality. Even so, the discussion got me thinking about marriage and how these tenets could be reworded to truly provide a better foundation for a relationship.
Sex is a taboo in Asian society. We have ignored it in our marriages but it's all down to sex. A good wife is a good sex worker to her husband. What is wrong with being a whore ... to your husband? This way, the family institution is protected and we can curb social ills.
-- Rohayah Mohamad, co-founder of the Obedient Wives Club
It's possible, as sexologist Dr. Susan Block has mentioned on Twitter, that the use of the term "whore" means to illustrate more openness as it regards communication and exploration of sexual desires, but as I have said elsewhere, I have a problem with the use of sex worker epithets when describing activities outside of sex work because of the distinction I make between transactions and relationships.
Transactions such as those that occur in sex work involve an agreed-upon exchange. Each party works toward negotiating terms that they see as beneficial to them -- the main concern being not so much fairness to all parties as it is personal gain. Relationships, on the other hand, involve the creation of an organism, wherein the parties involved work toward a common goal. Fairness, in the maintenance of a healthy relationship, is paramount to ensure that all parties do what is needed to move the relationship toward its goals.
So while I agree that good sex should be something to strive for, I don't like the idea of it becoming transactional. Sex in a functional relationship has as a common goal, the fulfillment of both parties. It's possible that our partner may wish to experience things we are not sure we will like, and we may agree to try these out, but in order for the experience to be complete, for us to feel safe and cherished, we need to be certain that our partners will respect our desires should we choose to prematurely end an activity if we are uncomfortable or otherwise not enjoying it.
In short, it should be the goal of both parties to strive to fulfill and satisfy one another, and to keep in mind a partner’s comfort and well-being as well our own pleasure.
While at some points in our relationships prioritizing sex may be the way to go, I am hesitant about ideas such as those presented in books such as Forty Beads: The Simple, Sexy Secret for Transforming Your Marriage, which suggests a man should let his wife know when he wants sex by placing one of the 40 beads he is allotted (apparently annually) in her "bead-holder."
This method doesn't simply seem to ignore that women have desires just as men do, but by placing a 24-hour redemption period on each request, it creates a demand without allowing for communication in the same way that may be achieved if one partner were to tell the other, "I want to devour you. Can we make a date tonight?" In the latter scenario, a man or woman has the option of saying that he or she has had a long day, and suggest a better opportunity. Face it, we get tired. In a healthy sexual relationship, it's perfectly acceptable to wish to postpone sex until we’re at our best to enjoy ourselves and our partners.
It is also essential to remember that while sex is an expression of desire and even love, it is not the root cause of either desire or love. Sex fosters intimacy -- it does not create it. Intimacy happens long before and long after sex. Neither is sex a deterrent of abuse or, necessarily, of infidelity.
Islam compels us to be obedient to our husband. Whatever he says, I must follow. It is a sin if I don’t obey and make him happy.
-- Ummu Atirah, member of The Obedient Wives Club.
Observing the boundaries and decisions made in a marriage could be described using the word "obedience." However, without allowing one's partner a voice, it is difficult to maintain obedience that is free of resentment. A happy marriage is a balanced marriage where both parties are satisfied and visible, two things that depend heavily on frank communication.
Decisions made together that take into account both partners' perspectives are more likely to be enforced than decisions made without taking into consideration one another's views or wishes. For this reason, instead of using the word "obedience," I prefer to use the word "respect."
Understanding a partner's take and preference and working with him or her to find solutions that help achieve relationship and personal goals empower both parties. It also helps make a partner feel heard, understood and cherished, or, as Edwin A. Locke and Ellen Kenner describe in the authoritative guide to sane relationships, The Selfish Path To Romance, they make a partner feel "visible."
Visibility, rooted in interest and concern for a partner, is at the root of intimacy, and essential to a marriage. While the Stepford practice of showering a man with attention and not concerning him with our daily toils and doing our utmost to make him forget his own troubles may seem to promote visibility, it is a shallow exchange devoid of communion which doesn’t foster any understanding among the parties involved. As it turns out, this sort of communion, according to a 2008 study of infidelity among men, is more important than readily available sex as a deterrent for extramarital affairs.
These sentiments are echoed by Amirul Aftar, a Muslim man who commented on the Facebook group opposing the Obedient Wives Club by saying: "I do not want a wife to submit to my every beck and call. I want a wife who understands me."
When husbands come home, wives do not welcome their husbands with warm alluring smiles and sexy dressing ... That is the reality today.
-- Rohayah Mohamad, co-founder of the Obedient Wives Club
Conventional wisdom seems to agree that once people find their ideal partner, they let themselves go. While it isn't fair to expect that our partners won't age and their bodies won't change, we didn't simply fall in love with a shapeless entity, either. We fell in love with a complete being: a mind, a worldview and a physical body. Valuing your partner, therefore, does involve a certain level of upkeep.
This should not be viewed as an expectation for women and the body should certainly not have an ideal type or look imposed upon it. No, our appearance should be viewed as the physical manifestation of our attitude toward ourselves and, by extension, our partners and our life with them.
My mother always says that a person's home is a reflection of their soul. Is it messy? Is it so perfect as to cause mild heart palpitations at the thought that one may spill some wine or coffee on the impeccable carpeting? I find this is true of a person's body as well.
Accepting and loving yourself makes you a more lovable person, but this doesn't mean you should turn away from taking pride in your appearance. Who you "really" are isn't some ephemeral thing divorced from your body -- it is the full package. Thus, keeping fit, shaving unwanted body hair, wearing ironed clothes, ensuring your breath is fresh and brushing your hair shows that you value your physical person. Beyond that, dressing up, wearing makeup, styling your hair, and even cosmetic surgery do provide an opportunity for self-expression -- and there is nothing wrong that, so long as one does not become obsessed with only the physical aspect of themselves to the detriment of their inner selves or other facets of their lives.
So, yes, I do think that the way we present ourselves is important. But this is part of loving ourselves and expressing ourselves, with the added benefit that our self-esteem will make itself manifest in our physical person, letting our partners know that we are satisfied and healthy and that we care enough about them to continue to wish to appear desirable.
But, again, this is not something only for women to consider, but something for men to keep in mind as well. You like to come home to me all dolled up in lingerie? I love my lingerie, too. But you know what I really like? When your face is so smooth, I don't feel like I'm under a sandblaster when you undo the corset and begin to shower me with delighted kisses.
It's a matter of personal preference, of course. And that's fine. A functional relationship makes note of these things, leaves plenty of room for working out incongruities, and cherishes the culture of two created in the process.
Mrs. Turk, a Muslim convert, discusses her views on the Qur’an:
Nowhere do the teachings of Allah instruct women to be whores to their husbands; in no passage are women told to be simply submissive to their husbands and throughout the Koran, as well as each and every accompanying hadith, the equality of men and women is emphasized. … In Islam – from the book, the examples, the essence – men are not elevated above women in daily life and this religion doesn’t teach submission but encourages women to think, to question, to learn. A wife, in Muslim teachings, is the leader of the home and her family within.
We do not want sexist nonsense from Global Ikhwan Sdn.Bhd is a group on Facebook that opposes the tenets of the Obedient Wives Club.
The Sisters in Islam’s site touches on equality:
The Qur'an, in addressing the believers, often uses the expression, 'believing men and women' to emphasize the equality of men and women in regard to their respective duties, rights, virtues and merits. It says:
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (33:35)
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.