A brother approached me some time ago asking for help. He was seriously contemplating divorcing his wife but he didn’t want to because he really loved her. But she was making life a living hell. This was due to her outrageous expectations.
She was a practicing Muslima who attended lectures, took religious classes, etc. She had learned that Islamically, the husband has to provide for the wife and the wife has no responsibility to contribute. She had heard over and over again from certain teachers — the ones portraying themselves as “allies to Muslim women” — that everything a Muslim woman earns is hers and she has the right to refuse to contribute anything to the household. She has the right to refuse to do housework, cook, clean, etc. This is all the husband’s responsibility which he must bear alone.
What made matters worse is that his wife had also learned that, according to the fiqh, a husband is responsible for providing living standards for his wife that are commensurate with her social class. She fancied herself as high class given that they lived in one of the more well-to-do areas of town and her friends all lived in big houses, drove luxury sedans, wore expensive outfits, etc. Why should she settle for any less, especially when Shaykh Fulan had said in his weekend fiqh seminar that Muslim women must be “treated like queens” and must be furnished a lifestyle that is commensurate with that. This was the Traditional Islam™ she had been taught and she used it as a club to bludgeon her husband emotionally and psychologically.
The brother told me all this and his problem was that, after two years of this, he was struggling to make ends meet. He had for two years worked hard to meet these huge demands, but then, suddenly he was laid off from his job. His wife, however, was working, making good money, but she did not want to help out financially. Eventually she begrudgingly loaned him money to pay for their expenses, but it came at a price.
According to Shaykh Fulan, if the man does not provide financially, his wife has no duty to obey him (not that she was obeying him before because that would be “Patriarchy!” which, surprise, surprise, Shaykh Fulan also denounces vociferously). This led to more tension because the wife kept rubbing in his face how inadequate he was as a man AND as a Muslim. She did not respect him, even though he had spent two years devotedly working hard to provide her the lavish lifestyle she demanded and she enjoyed.
This story is just one of so many. In certain parts of the US, the Muslim divorce rate has jumped in the past few years and part of the reason is that some of these Muslim figures have been peddling such an over exaggerated picture of women’s rights in Islam that some Muslim women’s expectations of their rights vs. responsibilities are completely unhinged. What did we expect to happen by constantly telling Muslim women that they are poor, innocent victims that should be treated like queens, and if they are not treated as such, that is tantamount to abuse from the selfish, savage Muslim man, who is prone to violence and infidelity? How can Muslim men live up to these ridiculous expectations? Marital dissatisfaction on the part of the wife is the inevitable result and she is the one demanding divorce.
The common trope nowadays is that dysfunction in the Muslim family is primarily due to the failings of the husband/father. It’s the husband that’s unreasonable in selfishly demanding his rights; it’s the husband who is more likely to be unfaithful; it’s the husband who is typically the abuser, etc. Of course, none of these assertions are backed by reputable research of the Muslim community. But that doesn’t stop some Muslims from believing these claims and it certainly doesn’t stop shameless panderers from peddling them.
As I’ve often explained, the “Abusive Muslim Man” myth originated with Orientalists who wanted to justify colonization. The colonizers portrayed themselves as saving the poor, innocent Muslim maiden from the savage Muslim man who forces his womenfolk to abide by the repressive diktats of the Sharia. The colonizer, thus, offered freedom from this hell on earth, freedom from the veil, freedom from polygyny, freedom from domestic drudgery, freedom from motherhood, etc. This narrative has been thoroughly internalized by some Muslims.
And some male Muslim figures promote and teach the community this same “Abusive Muslim Man” myth. They teach it because it is a popular myth that resonates with the broader Western cultural consciousness and one can benefit financially and professionally by plugging into that. Along those lines, there is a powerful incentive to portray oneself as “one of the good ones,” i.e., a Muslim man who “gets it,” a Muslim man who is a “real ally of women,” a Muslim man who “actually cares about women” contrary to expectations, contrary to the average Muslim male savage. In sum, there is a powerful incentive to advance this myth and entrench it, all the while portraying oneself as the “Muslim white knight.”
What makes this mindset difficult to deal with is that it is plagued by conformation bias. Many of those reading this right at this moment are thinking, “But I do know abusive Muslim men!!!”
Let me be clear. The “Abusive Muslim Man” myth is not a myth because there are no abusive Muslim men. Of course there are. Rather, it is a myth because Muslim men are not more prone to be abusive when compared to non-Muslim men AND even Muslim women. The abuse from some women simply takes on a variety of forms that are no less damaging and no less pervasive than what is seen from Muslim men.
As I’ve said before, I have come across countless examples of abusive Muslim women. These stories don’t get spread far and wide precisely because they go against the cultural consciousness and the Orientalist mindset some have internalized. There are examples of Muslim women physically abusing their husbands (and children). There are even more examples of emotional and psychological abuse. The above is just one heart-wrenching example.*
NB: This post is not about disputing certain fiqh positions. Yes, according to some opinions in the Shafi`i school, wives reserve the right to refuse household chores, cooking, cleaning, etc. What should trouble us, however, is the imbalance in emphasizing this point of fiqh without equally emphasizing (or even mentioning) the other side. Why aren’t those who emphasize this point of fiqh also emphasizing that husbands have the right to sex and if the wife refuses without legitimate reason, this is sinful? Could it be because they don’t want to face the backlash of feminists and “woke” social justice warriors who consider this “marital rape”? Or why don’t they emphasize the right of the husband to disallow his wife from inviting anyone into their house who he does not approve of? Or the right of the husband to refuse his wife from leaving the house without legitimate reason? Why do the faux-traditionalists not equally emphasize major fiqh points like these, I wonder… It’s not a mystery.