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Stop Romanticizing Nuclear Families

I was recently listening to an Egyptian talk show where people call in to ask for advice from the resident scholar or imam. In this particular clip, a woman called in and complained that her fifty-something year old husband has been cheating on her for many years. First with her neighbour, then with a slew of other women he meets online. She said she keeps confronting him, then he promises to change and do better (but, no surprise here, he continues to go back to cheating time and again).

She explained that she’s very afraid she’ll contract an STD from him, so was asking the Imam whether or not she should consider divorce or at least separation.

The Imam’s response was infuriating. I shouldn’t have been surprised at it, but I was. He said what so many people say: “Be patient, stay with him for the sake of your kids, pretend you don’t notice the cheating, he’s committing a sin but this is just a phase for him and he’ll eventually sort himself out.” 

That's it. No nuance, no asking for more details, no advising on how to seek medical help or emotional comfort, and no true understanding.

As I sat in front of my computer screen, my jaw dropped. Here’s a woman who, for years, has been continuously humiliated and degraded by her husband in this manner. She’s constantly being lied to and manipulated. She’s upset, angry, and withdrawn all the time because she’s afraid her kids will find out about their father’s thoughtless dalliances. She’s even afraid to get a sexually transmitted disease!

 And that was the best response? “Just stay with him and be patient.”

***

Throughout my life, I’ve heard many Muslim speakers talk about the importance of a nuclear family: "No matter what, kids need both their mom and dad in the same household to thrive," or, “Single parents end up having delinquent children," or, “When we have broken families, our community is broken."

The list of statements like this can go on for literally pages. As time goes on and I experience more of this imperfect world, it has become clear to me just how much these statements can easily promote religious blackmail. We blackmail people into staying in terribly unhealthy relationships because “Allah will be angry if you get a divorce,” or “your kids will become criminals.”

So many women (and men) live out miserable, humiliated lives because they think that’s what Allah wants. But Allah (swt) gave each and every single human being on this earth dignity and honour.

He (swt) says, “And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference” (17:70).

He has honoured us.

Prophet Muhammad (saw) was once looking at the Ka’bah, and he said: “How great you are! And how great is your sanctity! But the sanctity of a believer is greater with Allah than even your sanctity (i.e., the Ka’bah).” (Tirmidhi)

The sanctity and honour of a believer is not something to be scoffed at.

But somehow our religious upbringing failed to shed light on the fact that each of us has inherent value in the sight of Allah. We’re told to forgive people when they harm us, to let things go, to give people “70 excuses,” to assume the best of others, and to be patient. And these are all indeed amazing qualities to practice – in some situations. In other situations, not so much.

We have to also be taught that forgiveness has a limit, giving excuses and assuming the best of others has a limit, and patience doesn’t mean being a doormat that people wipe their feet on.

Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “A believer does not allow himself to be stung twice from one (and the same) hole.” (Bukhari)

A believer is meant to constantly be learning from his or her experiences.

If we are ripped off by a store that sold us an item for five times its actual price, we’re likely not going to shop there again, right? If friends “borrow” our things and money all the time and never return them, we’re going to rethink allowing them to have access to that stuff, right? If we tell our secrets to people, then they go make those secrets public, we’re likely not going to tell them any more secrets, right?

That’s called learning – that’s called knowing not to be stung from the same hole twice. We have to adopt this attitude for our own mental wellbeing. Yes, we absolutely forgive, and we are kind, and we are patient with people as much as we are able – but there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. There is our dignity that shouldn’t be trampled on.

I truly believe that nuclear families should be the norm when possible, but we cannot place a higher value on the apparent well being of the community than the well being of the individuals in it. When we assign such a high value to nuclear families, and idealize them to an unhealthy degree, people (most often women) fall into painful and degrading marriages just to avoid the stigma of being called a single parent or a divorcée.

I am absolutely not advocating for people to divorce willy nilly, or put their needs and desires above all else in perpetuity. It is important work out relationship disputes, to mediate marriages and encourage couples to survive tough times together, and to keep a family unit together whenever possible.

But it’s religiously dishonest to pretend that these things do not have limits.

We also like to pretend that no one in the time of the Prophet (saw) got divorced, or adopted kids, or had blended families with step-parents and siblings, or lived as a single mother or father.

But all of these things happened, and the community wasn’t weakened by it.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is: why wasn’t their community weakened by it? The answer is quite simple: they had supports in place to care for the individuals in their communities.

They had leadership who cared enough to know what was going on with the people. They had bayt-ul-mal money set aside for people who were struggling to stay afloat. They had laws and guidelines regarding how a man treated his ex-wife emotionally and financially. The people were held accountable by one another, and not just left to do whatever they wanted to each other. And there were other built-in supports for people, which meant that they didn’t have to be stuck in their suffering if they didn’t want to be. It wasn't always perfect, but it was there.

So instead of advising people to endure a life of misery and humiliation, maybe we should start giving value to individuals, evaluating how we can make sure they get their rights, and keeping them supported and loved and accepted in our community if they decide to leave.

Featured photo credit: Marco Ascrizzi

13 comments

  • Ma’shaa’Allah, well written. I have been seeing this more and more, of women who are finding the courage to say “I don’t deserve this kind of life” – after they have tried the patience and working-it-out route. May Allah(swt) guide all of us to treat each other better and to fear Allah in how we deal with each other. People, stop stigmatising divorced and single parents!

    F S
  • Thank you so much Asmaa for this post. I am happy that some people tell about these critical issue that many muslims couple face of…
    I was in the same situation when i face divorce and i have still some psychological effect of some people telling me at that time to be patient, and put a guilty feeling on me.

    A divorcée
  • Beautiful piece, Asmaa. Thank you for sharing.

    Nichole
  • @ an Imam: You’re right. This article is quite general, and nuance is important. I assume my readers are intelligent enough to know that not all imams and speakers are like this. But there are enough of them to often drown out the voice of reason coming from Imams that are more in touch with the lived experiences of their community members.

    And you know what? All it takes is one imam to give one abused woman the “be patient” advice to ruin a life. So that’s what we’re talking about here.

    There’s also a certain way many of us (not all of us) have learned religion – a way that constantly promotes forgiveness and kindness, but doesn’t really touch upon justice, integrity, standing against oppression, etc. That knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from just Imams/speakers – that’s quite often a societal and cultural phenomenon.

    May Allah (swt) reward you for being more open and willing to approach these issues with balance and true understanding.

    Asmaa Hussein
  • It’s unfair to use one imam’s advice and write a whole piece portraying all imams as out of touch. Maybe interview more imams and include their comments to give a more conprehensive picture. Nuance is important.

    An Imam

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