Singapore: Can a woman head a Muslim family?

"Refining Muslim laws should not stop at organ transplant but include women's roles in the family."
In more ways than one, Muslim Singaporeans have a reputation of being in tune with the times. They were the first to introduce the concept of asset migration in 2001 when the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) used proceeds from the sale of smaller Muslim properties placed under its trust to buy a building in Beach Road. That purchase also saw Muis issuing the inaugural musharakah, or joint-venture bonds, when it entered into an agreement with bond investors to purchase and lease the same premises.
Yet, in some other aspects, especially those relating to the family, this progressive streak seems to be wanting.

Among other things, under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (Amla) that governs family law for Muslims, a woman must get the consent of a male guardian (wali) - usually her father or brother - before she can marry.

On inheritance, the Amla, which was introduced in 1966, says her male siblings are entitled to a larger portion. The rationale is simple: Men are considered the family breadwinner, and thus the natural head of the household. As such they have to shoulder a greater burden than their dependents, the women and children.

But while that neat gender divide was valid 40 years ago, official statistics suggest the situation is no longer so clear-cut today. Consider this: In 2005, there were 24 per cent more female Muslim graduates than males. Last year, the number of female Muslim graduates marrying their educational equals decreased by 3 percentage points, compared to a decade earlier. But the number marrying men with a post-secondary education increased by about 8 percentage points between 2004 and last year.

In other words, the social context for Muslim families in Singapore has changed vastly since the Amla was implemented. The long-held assumption that the man is the sole breadwinner who draws a higher salary than his wife may soon become a myth - if it is not already one. Given the developments, it is heartening to hear that the Amla is currently under review so as to ensure its relevance in the 21st century.

This assurance came from no less than the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim in an interview with this newspaper earlier this month. About a week before the interview, a United Nations committee on women's rights had expressed "deep concerns" about certain aspects of Islamic law here.

Is the inheritance law fair? Is the wali still needed? Should polygamy be allowed? In his response, Dr Yaacob maintained that Muslims here have taken a progressive approach when it comes to implementing Islamic laws.

Two likely new laws bear this out: One, to raise the legal marriageable age for Muslims from 16 to 18, and the other, to have Muslims - like other Singaporeans - included automatically in the Human Organ Transplant Act unless they opt out, thus reversing a 20-year rule.

But why stop at two? There are areas related to Muslim family laws that could do with updating. Take divorce, for one. Muslim divorces last year went up by 44 per cent, compared to those of a decade earlier. Of the 1,944 divorce cases last year, petitions by women account for more than half, while those filed by men account to only nearly a quarter. If men were truly the breadwinners and women their dependents, then one would expect the women to be more cautious when filing for divorce. Yet, they are the ones initiating the move. Women are not afraid to file for divorce precisely because they know that, without a husband, they can support themselves and their children. In fact, 63 per cent of the females who filed for divorce last year had jobs. The irony is that many of them cited "inadequate maintenance" on their husbands' part as the reason for their wanting out. Given that the Amla allows divorce on such grounds, is it not time to refine the divorce laws?

Also, with more Muslim husbands earning less than their spouses, making it compulsory for men to provide maintenance for their ex-wives may be out of sync with the times. In fact, a woman earning a higher income than her spouse - and thus not needing monthly maintenance - can use this provision to legally "get rid of her husband". Of course, any proposal to do away with inadequate maintenance as grounds for divorce is going to be highly controversial.

Lawyer Halijah Mohamed, who practises Islamic law, thinks it would be unfair to women, especially if the notion of a man as head of the Muslim household remains entrenched in the community. Still, this writer believes that some revision to the law is needed. Perhaps, legislation could be changed to limit compulsory maintenance to cases where the husband is either the sole breadwinner or who earns substantially more than his wife.

Another area that could be relooked is inheritance. For the Amla to keep up with the times, it must be able to give a woman the right to inherit a share equal to her brother's if she has been contributing more to the family's upkeep than him.

And it should also allow a Muslim woman to have the final say on who she wants to marry without needing the permission of a wali - notwithstanding the fact that, currently, a Muslim woman can appeal against her wali's decision to the Syariah court if she can prove that it was made on "unreasonable grounds".

Also, more could be done to allow a Muslim woman to leave a polygamous marriage if she finds such an arrangement disagreeable. Ms Halijah suggests making provisions in the Amla to allow couples to make some form of agreement when they get married, such as allowing a woman to divorce her husband if he remarries.

Refining the Amla to keep it in step with the changing lifestyles and needs of the Muslim community won't be easy. Can Muslim Singaporeans accept that the ever-changing social context will, in the not-so-distant future, embrace a family structure in which leadership is based not on gender but on capability? And, as the income gap between men and women closes, must we still uphold the view that men are the leaders of their families?

There are no easy answers. Still, one thing is clear. Whether it is raising the minimum marriageable age or adding Muslims to the national organ transplant database, in refining Islamic laws to take into account new social realities, it is all about necessity.

And this is, after all, within the Muslim tradition of keeping up with the times.

By: Nazry Bahrawi

Source: TodayOnline

18 August 2007