I have a sneaky feeling that the government is going to refuse to register the Singapore chapter of the Obedient Wives Club under the Societies Act. If at all the authorities are even considering to grant it registration, the Home Affairs Ministry is going to have to fend off enormous pressure from the orthodox Muslim authorities to say “No”.
To refuse registration is wrong. The Obedient Wives Club (OWC) should be recognised as a legitimate society. One does not have to agree with its aims to speak up for its right to exist. And to promote its beliefs.
Originating from Malaysia, the OWC is reported to be descended from Al Arqam, a group that the Kuala Lumpur government banned on the ground that it preached a deviant from of Islam. Some adherents then went on to start a group promoting polygamy; now there’s the OWC.
What the OWC’s status is in Malaysia is unclear, but it should not matter to Singapore. This is because, while the Malaysian constitution declares that Islam to be the official religion of Malaysia, a position which inevitably entangles the government of the day in the definition of what “Islam” is, Singapore is a secular state. We believe in the separation of religion from affairs of state, and our government should not be in the business of deciding what constitutes “Islam” and what does not. Singapore cannot and should not be trying to decide whether OWC is deviant or not, which a refusal to register would be tantamount to. Any group is free to promote teachings that go against religious orthodoxy. Thus, there is no basis whatsoever to refuse registration to the OWC on dogmatic grounds.
The Malaysian OWC hit the headlines when a spokeswoman for it was reported to have said that a husband whose wife “is as good as or better than a prostitute in bed” has no reason to stray. “Rather than allowing him to sin, a woman must do all she can to ensure his desires are met.”
Keeping husbands sexually satisfied is key to solving several other social ills as well, such as domestic violence — so goes the Club’s argument. The Singapore chapter, by all accounts, adopts a similar position as the Malaysian OWC.
Yet such attitudes are not that far removed from patriarchal ideas dominant in our Malay-Muslim community, as Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib argued in the Straits Times recently:
An unmistakable trend is the idea that the husband has the right to be gratified sexually by his wife at all times.
Thus, marriage is primarily seen not as a relationship of mutual love and respect, but as a set of duties and obligations. The man, as the absolute leader in the family, is entitled to absolute obedience from the woman. Any form of denial or subversion of his authority may constitute nushuz (rebellion). Inadvertently, this has led to men believing that they have the right to demand sex from their wives, even if she refuses.
These ideas are part of the worldview of traditionalist Islam. The popularity of books such as Tohfa-e-Doulhan (Gift For The Bride), sold in local bookstores here, latches on to a dominant orientation as much as it seeks to entrench patriarchy through religious discourse.
— Straits Times, 22 June 2011, Time to thrash out gender roles. by Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib
Further one, he points out that the concept of obedience easily becomes central to hopes of dealing with domestic and social problems. However, it brings with it gender inqeuality:
In the simplistic minds of traditionalists, all domestic problems can be solved when men exercise their authority responsibly and women obey men as an act of submission to ‘God’s will’.
In such a patriarchal structure, men are to a degree above women. Thus, internal Muslim critiques of gender biases are often dismissed as an imposition of alien world views such as ‘Western feminism’.
The same writer goes on to argue that such a traditionalist view of Islam is now disputed by reformists, with good authority from the Koran itself. Nonetheless, one good thing that might come out of this episode would be to open discussion about gender roles and sex within Islam, he said.
Yet opening up discussion is exactly what guardians of orthodoxy do not want. In 2000, the play Talaq was banned following protests by Muslim clerics, though the grounds of decision mumbled something about “protecting religious and racial sensitivities”. That play did exactly what Mohd Inram would welcome – raise questions about gender inequity within Islam, and the domestic violence it breeds – through highlighting the ease by which a husband can divorce his wife by pronouncing the word “Talaq” three times in a row.
It’s no use saying let’s have a discussion on this to open people’s minds whenever religious leaders want their following to jettison certain ideas, while being equally eager to lower the guillotine when it does not suit those same leaders to have their ideas or “sensitivities” challenged out of turn. One cannot resort to banning to protect orthodoxy from challenge and then bemoan that patriarchal orthodoxy persists.
Indeed it would be deeply ironic for the defenders of male-dominated conventional interpretations of Islam, ever-ready to demand obedience through the use of censorship, state and social coercion, to flap about today when some of their co-religionists make a fetish of obedience.
And this is before we even bring up any citizen’s right to freedom of belief, of expression and of association, for which Singapore’s track record of honouring is disgraceful.