Promoting gender equality, but ignoring Muslim women’s rights?

April 01, 2019

Does mahr necessarily lead to gender inequality?

Image: Marianne Bøe

Image: Marianne Bøe

What’s in a mahr?

Mahr, a dower practice seen as obligatory to Muslim marriage, is not formally approved in Norway. The explanation is that it is seen as contravening “Norwegian law and general gender equality principles”. In contrast to related concepts such as dowry and bride price, mahr is not offered to the bride’s parents or to her family in law, but to the woman in a Muslim marriage and is considered her property exclusively. This blog post explores whether mahr is in fact a barrier to gender equality as held by the Norwegian State or whether, it also holds importance for women’s rights in Muslim marriages. 

No one named, no one blamed

In the most recent volume of the book series Annotated Legal Documents on Islam, I have documented that there are few laws and regulations that deal explicitly with Islam or Muslims in Norway. Unlike some European countries where the status and registration of Muslim communities have been controversial, Muslim communities have generally enjoyed the same rights and treatment as other religious communities outside the Norwegian Church.

Although there are laws that can be indirectly linked to certain Muslim communities in Norway, such as the 2014 Law on the Ritual Circumcision of Boys, the 2018 Ban on face-covering headgear in teaching situations or section (§253) of the Criminal Law dedicated to forced marriages, such laws do not explicitly mention Islam or Muslims. Norwegian laws and guidelines are typically formulated in general ways without naming any specific religious communities, practices or norms – except those dealing with the Norwegian Church.

The State approval of marriage rituals, however, refers to dower practices in general, but also mentions the Muslim mahr in particular. Mahr is the only religious form of dower specifically named in the requirements. Arguably, it stands out in regard to Norway’s general approach towards its religious minority communities.

Requirements for State approval marriage rituals

Norway has a so-called double track legal system for authorising marriages. Either the marriage can be authorised according to civil law, or it can be contracted by a religious or life philosophy community allocated the authority of the State to perform marriages. However, for a religious or life stance community to conduct State-authorised marriages, the marriage ritual itself must be approved by the State.

The Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (Bufdir) is in charge of the current approval process of marriage rituals. On the Bufdir website, there are three listed requirements for approving marriage rituals. These requirements, it is said, are to ensure that marriage rituals are conducted “(…) in accordance with Norwegian law and general gender equality principles”. Whereas the second and third criteria for approval of marriage rituals are addressed more generally, the first criterion is explicitly directed towards the practice of dowry and mahr. It states: 

The requirements against mahr do not entail a ban on mahr, as they are not legally enforced. Equally important to note, is that if a marriage ritual is not approved by Bufdir on the basis of including mahr, the marriage ritual application may be revised and resubmitted, provided that any referral to mahr in the marriage ritual is removed. The parties involved in the marriage ritual are then free to make their own private agreements on mahr, as long as it is not mentioned and included in the civil part of the marriage ceremony. Still, the Norwegian legal requirements rely on a very narrow interpretation of mahr, and disregards the fact that mahr tends to be practiced in very different ways and holds diverse functions in the Norwegian setting and abroad.

The complex and contentious character of mahr

Mahr constitutes a central aspect of a Muslim marriage. It is mentioned in the Quran several times (e.g. surah 4:4), and many Muslims therefore see it as obligatory to a marriage. Moreover, mahr is considered the sole property of the wife; no family member or other party involved in the marriage can claim ownership. Mahr is also a complex issue, and speaks to religious, legal, financial and cultural aspects of the marriage, as well as the socio-economic status and class of the bride, groom and their families. In order to grasp the complexities that mahr actually involves, it is central to consider how it is used and interpreted.

Mahr is a main part of the Muslim marriage contract (aqd al-nikah). On this basis it is an important guarantee of the woman’s legal rights, not least if the marriage is dissolved. In some cases, mahr also functions as a legal bargaining tool. If a woman seeks to end her marriage through Islamic law, she can do so through khul‘, by asking for her husband’s consent. Most commonly, the husband can release her from the marriage contract in return for her mahr. Such bargaining can be found both in settings where Muslims are in the majority and where Muslims constitute the minority. Khul‘ founded the basis of a new law enacted in Egypt in 2000. The law, which was initiated by Egyptian women's rights activists, introduced divorce rights for women who would give up their mahr in return for divorce. In Iran, the legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini has documented the ways in which women bargain with mahr, and the legal scholar Katja Jansen Fredriksen has shown that similar procedures can be found in some European courts

Although mahr is seen as mandatory to a Muslim marriage and often embraced as an expression of the rights offered to women in Muslim marriages, it is also a highly contested issue among Muslims. In my PhD dissertation dealing with Iranian family law debate spanning from 2007-2011, I interviewed women’s rights activists in Iran who compared mahr to the sale of a woman in marriage. Ideally, they explained, they would remove the practice of mahr from Iranian law altogether if they could. However, as women’s rights in marriage and divorce are scarce in the Iranian system, they sought to maintain mahr as a financial and legal right that served as a guarantee for women’s rights in Muslim marriage and in the event of divorce.

There are also many examples of mahr being used in differentiated ways. For my postdoctoral project I have interviewed members of Norway’s Iranian diaspora community who report on a wide specter of symbolic use of mahr. Some ask for a hajj travel to Mecca as mahr to signify their romantic and religious aspirations for their marriage, whereas others rely on merely flowers or sweets as signs of their love marriage. Although most of them denounce mahr, they maintain it both as a marker of an “Iranian style” marriage, and for its financial and legal value.

To complicate the matter even further, mahr is a highly contextual practice, and its functions may depend on where it is being practiced and by whom. Although mahr’s primary function may be to provide financial security for women in a Muslim marriage, it can also represent asymmetric economic effects for different groups of women when practiced in Western societies. The legal scholar Pascal Fournier, for instance, has shown how mahr not only entails a potential financial bonus for the wife after divorce, but also a moral victory, personal revenge or an act of liberation. 

Difficulties and ignorance 

At present, civil law and informal religious family law systems coexist in Norway. This has led to the discussion of to what degree the State should intervene in religious marriages. Already in 2005, professor in Middle Eastern studies Berit Thorbjørnsrud addressed such issues in her groundbreaking book Evig Din (Forever Yours). The book was published shortly after members of Parliament (Stortinget) sought to adopt a new regulation aimed at tackling so-called limping marriages. By demanding that men and women were given equal divorce rights in all religious marriages, they hoped to resolve the problem once and for all. At the time, limping marriages was understood as a Muslim problem exclusively. But to many people’s surprise, Muslim communities did not object to the proposed reform as Muslim marriage contracts entail specific criteria for divorce and dissolution of marriage. As it turned out it was actually the Catholic Church that most strongly opposed the new regulation, as marriage in Catholicism is seen as a sacrament and divorce is thus not generally accepted.

The limping marriage case illustrates the difficulties in regulating religion while at the same time safeguarding women’s rights. It also reveals the State's ignorance and lack of knowledge on what kind of practices and beliefs that currently exist in the area of religious marriages conducted in Norway. The requirements for approving marriage rituals serve as yet another example of this. As described in the previous, mahr is complex, contentious and at times even contradictory. It may serve as a legal bargaining tool, as post-divorce maintenance, as a gift or even a symbol of romantic and religious aspirations for marriage. At present, the requirements for marriage rituals are based on a narrow interpretation of mahr that does not take any such complexities into consideration. On paper mahr may speak against gender equality principles, but in practice it serves additional functions and sometimes even works in favor of women’s rights. Such nuances are ignored in the current requirements for marriage rituals. Rather than deeming mahr a practice that hampers gender equality, it should be acknowledged that at times it does in fact promote gender equality within Muslim marriages.