Planning for Love
The Family, Say Some, Knows the Needs of Young People Better Than They Do
The sign was clear enough: "Please take off your shoes before entering." Although Central Europeans are used to slippers, I had never been in a place requiring what I read. I wondered whether it applied to me, a non-Muslim.
Moments later, my bare feet were sinking into the thick, lush carpet of the Islamic Denomination Center, and Carla Amina Baghajati was greeting me warmly. Despite her name, Baghajati is Austrian. She converted to Islam in her mid-twenties, after becoming fascinated by a German translation of the Koran as part of a literature class. She’s now married to a Syrian, and together they engage the larger public in a dialogue they hope will fight racism in Austria as well as other parts of Europe.
Speaking softly yet clearly, she told me that she was introducing Muslim children to contemporary Western Art. The interpretation of craft highlights many similarities between Muslims and the Western world, Baghajati said, and it became apparent that she liked the idea of merging cultures, nurturing understanding and eliminating prejudice. Yet how could a woman so enthralled with the Muslim culture provide with an objective view on more difficult aspects of Islam in Austria, like forced marriages?
She began by wanting to "set the record straight."
"Many people don’t differentiate between a forced, and an arranged marriage. It is important to distinguish between the two types," she said, "arranged marriages are a deeply rooted in the Muslim culture and involve the consent of both the man and woman, forced marriages on the other hand are explicitly forbidden by the Koran."
In either case, the "process" that leads to a possible marriage is never left to one individual. A man will announce his intention to marry, triggering a bride-search by his family. Word is spread within the community, and interested families send signals, which may result in an evening of coffee and discussion. On this non-committal occasion, thoughts are exchanged, hints and remarks are interwoven with the small talk, and marriage negotiations are already in progress.
Such gatherings can be interrupted at any time by the potential bride, however, who may privately express her dislike. Coffee will then be ended peacefully.
Odd as this seems to a westerner, these marriages can be as successful as those chosen by the young people themselves.
"I have a friend who got married under the same circumstances, and they are very happy with their life so far," said Hossein Nabavi, a Webster Vienna student of Muslim origin. "I guess it actually works better than having girls and boys themselves trying to find each other. Their family has been raising them and knows their styles and needs, therefore can make them a good offer."
Although a standard procedure, the level of family involvement sets the scene for problems: What if families agree but the children don’t? Social factors also come into play: What if an entire family could benefit from the marriage? As Baghajati points out, arranged marriages are not forced, but the negotiations certainly are delicate. The strong ties to tradition within the Muslim community provide security and strength, yet are also demanding.
The groom-to-be is expected to provide for the family. Should a woman bring wealth into the marriage or earn money herself, she is entitled to sole control over it, with no obligation to share it with the man or invest it into the family (although she normally will). This right of hers is manifested in writing within the Koran. On the other hand, a woman is also entitled to the standard of living she enjoyed prior to marriage, and the husband is obliged to maintain it for her.
Love is also not the only factor involved, as through his ability to provide, a man’s honour is at stake. Baghajati recalls various cases where excellent students took on low-paid, manual labour in order to fulfil their marital obligations. They disregard the opportunities a college education may provide in a couple of years time since maintaining the family becomes the most urgent task.
Another reason why so many Muslims make the step to marriage so early stems from another tradition familiar to Catholics: No sex before marriage.
Adolescent muslims are not – officially, at least – allowed pre-marital sex. Thus, when a young muslim man makes the choice to marry, life-time commitment may not be the most pressing issue on his mind.
Although Catholicism sets similar behavior guidelines, young Catholics are freed of the weight of "honour" in this sense, we have not connected it to love and commitment as much as the Muslim world. In an interview with Qatar’s news channel Al Jazeera TV, Hasan Rahimpur-Azgahadi of the Iranian Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, explains to a aula filled with veiled women:
"In western cultures, I witnessed this myself personally; I saw a husband and wife going to a restaurant, having dinner. After dinner was finished they each paid separately, each of them took their wallet out and paid for what they ate. Can you imagine this? Can you imagine this in one of our families, such little commitment in emotional relations that the husband won't even pay for his wife’s dinner? It’s happening here occasionally, in families that are being taken over by western culture."
A Muslim woman who has pre-marital sex is considered dishonored, according to Baghajati, a grave situation not only for her, but for the entire family. In these situations forced marriages are required to "save" a young woman from social condemnation. This is something Baghajati opposes. She hopes to start a dialogue on the subject, and suggests a practice of "trail marriages" common in many Islamic cultures. Under this custom, the couple is officially declared husband and wife, but go through a year or so, in which their social context remains unchanged, they are allowed to spend time together, but keep living at home and have no marital obligations. In many ways this is like an engagement, and the decision can be revoked within that time span, with no strings attached.
"It is a marriage in which the time and responsibilities should be stated clearly according to satisfaction of both parties, Nabavi explains. The time can be from an hour to 6 months, or until one party says that it’s enough.
"Responsibilities can be discussed as well, for example its not necessarily the man who has to bring the money home, it can also be the woman’s responsibility. Basically it’s very similar to a contract in which both parties agree on terms."
Although this doesn’t seem to solve the pre-marital sex issue. But that, says Nabavi, is not the point.
"It allows people to understand the responsibilities of a life marriage and learn what they really like, then decide and commit themselves to that. Not at the age of 18 just because of sexual needs," he said.
Baghajati is also attempting to remove the heavy coating of honor weighing on pre-marital acquaintances, offering a chance for self-determination to Muslim youth. Unfortunately these approaches are overly neglected in nations like Turkey, which has the highest numbers of unwanted marriages. According to the Austrian daily der Standard approximately 50 – 60 unwanted marriages with girls resident in Vienna are held per year. Most of them are lured back to Turkey with promises of a family visit or holiday at the beach, and come home married to a Turk they hadn’t seen before. Meltem Weiland of the NGO Orient Express:
"The daughters of our Clients told me after the summers holidays: "Well, I went to Turkey over the holidays with my parents, and now I’m married. My parents forced me to marry."
However forced marriages in Austria can be as much about opportunity and economics as about affection or social bonds. A family living in a western country can "import" husbands or wives from their home country with promises of a better life in the golden West. These so-called "import wives," as Baghajati calls them, suddenly face a world in which they can neither speak the language nor rely on the social network they were used to at home. The women are usually dependent on their unwanted counterparts, and have little choice but to give in to the situation at hand.
Men too are imported, and in their striving to maintain their family – and thus their honor – they are forced to take on hard labuor jobs for which they are often overqualified
"And then they come home to their family after a tiresome 14 hour shift and are expected to fulfill marital obligations as well. Play with the kids, chat with the wife, fix the leaking fridge… But who would be able to do that then?" remarks Baghajati.
It’s one of her goals to talk to the "multipliers," leaders of communities back in Muslim states. She urges them to include the topic of forced marriage in their sermons, and to offer advice and insight into the topic before young men and women agree to leave for marriage. Teenagers are often blinded by the glitz of a Western life, she reported and of a wedding, an ostentatious ceremony, entirely centered on them.
"They’re enthralled by the whole commotion, just as every kid would be" Baghajati explained, "but at some point the night closes in. They find themselves sharing a bed for the first time and that’s when they realized what has actually happened."
Baghajati also thinks she knows where to place the blame:
"Forced marriages is still taboo in Muslim countries," she said. "Families will not talk about it." Although she doesn’t share the opinion that the Muslim religion actively promotes forced marriage, she does see the root of the problem stemming from the community itself.
"Muslims are responsible for creating their image. If they keep avoiding confrontation and closing their minds, the logical consequence is that they become incompatible with Western democracy. It is time for confrontation with oneself, instead of suppression."
An Author who has brought some of that critical self-reflection to the Muslim community is the 50 year old Austro-Turkish Necla Kelek, who has created quite a buzz with her various books on the topic, such as "Die fremde Braut" (the foreign wife). In an interview with Der Standard, she claims that the Muslim community lacks the discourse entirely, and although Baghajati dislikes Kelek’s use of the Koran to undermine allegedly allowed female oppression, they share one opinion:
"God did not create religion and send it to man. Religion is created by mankind and practiced by mankind. As long as the Islam remains a collectively aimed Religion, it’s not compatible with democracy."
Before I leave I try to learn about Baghajati’s marriage, and I am thrilled to learn that the couple lives happily and have joined forces to fight pressing issues such as this one.
What is not clear is whether liberalisation is possible within Islam as currently practiced; and while a westernised, convert can introduce a broader perspective, it is not clear whether a religion, so steeped in tradition will be able to respond. While it appears that forced marriages may well stem from a misinterpretation of the Koran, if custom enforces them, it may well be a moot point, at least in the foreseeable future. These writings are still heavily patriarchal, and I left knowing that Islam actually forbids these marriages, although in Ms. Bahajati’s view it is the most devoted Muslims who perform them. And while reasons of honor, the hope for a better future, the wish to help the family lead to a practice that goes against guidance in the Koran, what people believe will matter more than what is written.
However, if there is any hope for change through the influence of "soft-power" at this time of West-East alienation, the work of Carla Amina Baghajati and Islamic Denomination Center may be our best hope.
It can be compared to reasonable relationships here I would say. This is the solution to the problem. Because But unfortunately, it is not practiced much by Muslims because of cultural factors; however it is clearly stated in religious sentences."