Q: Why does Islamic law make it easy for an evil husband to oppress his wife?
A: In today’s age and with today’s social structures and some of the backwards cultural practices we find in some Muslim countries, yes, it may be easy for a malevolent husband to oppress his wife, to divorce her, to take advantage of her, to abuse her, and so on. But for most of Muslim history, this was not so easy. This is because the familial and social structure in most places throughout history were tribal based and/or based on the “extended” family. While it is easy for a husband to oppress his wife in today’s world, where families are very small and isolated and people have no connection to their parents, extended family, relatives, and so on, in the past, a wife could rely on these networks to support her against an oppressive or otherwise unreasonable husband. In fact, it was in the best interest of the family to defend its female members from such abuse, since dysfunctional families cannot produce functional children who will contribute positively to the tribe and/or extended family. It just made sense to watch for your own and with that kind of backing, women were not automatically in a position of de facto weakness in the face of a potentially malevolent husband.
It is today in modern society that women don’t have much recourse against abusive husbands. Women today have to rely on state institutions to provide them support, and obviously state institutions are not always in a position to help and at the end of the day, women are forced to rely on a cold bureaucratic system whereas family networks of the past could prosecute and hold an abusive husband accountable in a direct and immediate way. As the historical record will attest, this is how things were done for thousands of years, but modern society has dissolved the extended family and forced people to rely on state (and corporate) bureaucracy. The extended family is a crucial structure of functional human living according to Islam’s vision of human existence and this is emphasized in and assumed by the Sharia itself. The fact that many of our societies in the East and West are suffering such problems should tell us something about the viability of certain modern social structures and the dismantling of the extended family and its authority in our time.
So the real question is, should we reform Islamic law to conform to the diktats of modern society, which is suffering from all these problems, or should we reform these social structures and bring back those institutions that past civilizations, Muslim and non-Muslim, took for granted for thousands of years?