Doha Debates: Arranged marriages should end for Muslim women

(June 6, 2009) – The male-dominated Arab world was given a sharp warning by Qatar’s Doha Debates that Muslim women expect greater  freedom in choosing a husband.

An audience of more than 350 people who attended the last in the current season of debates voted 62 per cent to 38 in favour of a motion that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose.

In an often impassioned debate Asra Nomani, Bombay-born American author and journalist, said she wanted Muslim women to be able to exercise their basic human right to freedom of choice.

Speaking from her own experience of a loveless marriage she accepted because she didn’t believe she had choice, she said Muslim women needed to “know the suffering, the loneliness, the lovelessness that often comes out of marriages where women cannot make their own choices…and their spirit is broken”.

Ms. Nomani, currently adjunct professor of journalism at Georgetown University, refuted arguments that Muslim families should decide what was in the best interests of young women. She said families should “offer unconditional love and allow people to make free choices.

“It is for us to show the compassion that Islam is all about.”

Muhammad Habash, a Muslim cleric and member of the Syrian Parliament, who joined her in supporting the motion, said it was wrong to interpret the Koran as advocating the subjugation of women.

“I believe Islam gives women full human rights and the right to choose her own spouse.

“We, as parents, have the moral responsibility to protect our daughter, the right to correct and even to boycott her, if necessary, but I do not have the right to force her  (to do anything) beyond this.”

Speaking against the motion Thuraya Al Arrayed, a Saudi writer, columnist and member of the advisory board of the Arab Thought Foundation, argued that freedom was a “beautiful concept” with “hazy and sometimes conflicting definitions”.

She believed that marriage was too important a decision to leave up to the emotions of inexperienced young people.

“Youths under the ages of 25-27 are not the most wise or experienced.  They go by (mostly physical) attraction and need to be satisfied with the shortest possible wait.

“But marriage should not be about a “quick solution.”

She said it was ultimately too important to be decided by two young people because of the impact it has on others, most of all on children.

Yasir Qadhi, an American Muslim cleric speaking against the motion, suggested that if the debate was merely about granting “greater freedom” for women he would support it.

But because it appeared to be about giving them “unconditional rights” he had to oppose it since Islamic law forbade Muslim women from marrying a non-Muslim man as well as other women.

“Anyone arguing for ultimate freedom is arguing to destroy these boundaries.”