Sex trafficking, Prostitution, and other Sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages

BY UZMA MARIAM AHMED,
One of the primary reasons why Islam was revealed was to guarantee and clarify the important basic rights of women, and particularly their rights with regards to marriage, divorce, alimony, custody and related issues. We should not allow horrors such as sex trafficking, prostitution, and other sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages

Sex trafficking, Prostitution, and other Sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages

One of the primary reasons why Islam was revealed was to guarantee and clarify the important basic rights of women, and particularly their rights with regards to marriage, divorce, alimony, custody and related issues. We should not allow horrors such as sex trafficking, prostitution, and other sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages.
Sex trafficking and prostitution are not unique to Muslim people or to Muslim countries. They are, however, harder to identify when they take shelter within the confines of Islamic marriages. In religions that only recognize monogamous marriages, it is easier to take the first step of categorizing a relationship as deviating from a real marriage. In Islam, however, both monogamous and polygamous marriages are considered legitimate, and Muslims from different parts of the world and from varying schools of Islamic thought have created forms of purported marriages that, in some instances, seem difficult to distinguish from prostitution. Furthermore, because some Muslims find room for debate about the rules governing marriage, as well as divorce, alimony, custody, and child support issues, there is a potential for the creation of suspect relationships labeled as marriages.

Even a cursory survey of practices existing within the guise of Islamic marriages reveals that the boundaries of legitimate marital unions have been expanded to hide within their folds all manner of exploitative relationships. These include associations which are, in fact, sex trafficking and prostitution; one partner is either forcibly used for sex or is compensated through some monetary benefit.

These relationships range from those that are relatively easy to categorize as truly exploitative to those that appear to be legitimate polygamous unions, but do not conform to the Islamic requirements of a polygamous marriage. Though they exist on a wide spectrum, these relationships share commonalities. The most fundamental is that these unions deviate from the Qur’anic rules for both monogamous and polygamous marriages. They are also generally solemnized and consummated privately, their existence hidden from public view. The Prophet was known to have said, “What distinguishes the lawful from the unlawful was the drum and shouts of the nikah [marriage day].” Because these relationships are hidden from society, they also all involve situations where the Islamic rights of monetary support for spouses and children are denied.

The relationships easiest to recognize as pure sexual exploitation are those that involve sex trafficking, a form of sexual slavery. One famous instance was brought to light by Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times, who in 2006 covered the story of Aisha Parveen, a 20 year old Pakistani woman who was kidnapped and forced into prostitution as a 14 year old. Mian Sher, the man who kidnapped her and acted as her pimp, kept her as his youngest wife. During her six years as his slave, he beat her daily and sexually tortured her. Parveen finally managed to escape with the help of a man who was in the house doing repairs, and the two fell in love and married after their escape. Mian Sher was enraged, and he brought a case against Parveen for adultery, based on the legal argument that Parveen was his wife and had unlawfully fled with a lover. His plan was to then bail her out and take her back to the brothel.

Nicholas Kristoff began covering Parveen’s story while she was waiting for a verdict from the court, and the Pakistani and international press picked up on Parveen’s story. The publicity led to the court dismissing the case, allowing Parveen to permanently escape from Mian Sher. The fact that Mian Sher felt emboldened enough to pursue legal avenues to recover his sexual slave, based on this fictionalized marriage, indicates the grievous state of the law with regards to women’s rights in Pakistan. It also indicates that corruption and relaxed standards allow men to practice putative polygamous marriages and engage in terrible crimes, such as trafficking, under their guise. When Kristoff asked renowned Pakistani human rights attorney Asma Jahangir about Parveen’s case, Jahangir explained that she was completely unsurprised about Parveen’s situation, because it happens all the time in Pakistan.

While this instance is clearly sex trafficking hiding within the pretext of a marriage, there are other relationships which are harder to qualify as such, but still appear closer to prostitution than legitimate marital unions. For instance, mut’aa marriages are temporary marriages which are practiced by Shia Muslims. In a mut’aa marriage, men (and sometimes women) agree to pay their partners a certain sum of money for a marriage lasting a set period of time. The putative husband can end the contract before the expiration of the agreed upon period, but a wife must compensate the husband if she wants to end the union more quickly. Though Shia law recognizes the children of such marriages as legitimate, in practical terms it is difficult for women to prove the paternity of these children, because there are no witnesses to the creation of a mut’a relationship and no registration requirements. It is entirely a private transaction.

Similar to mut’aa marriages are urfi marriages practiced primarily in Egypt. These are referred to as secret marriages, as they are not sanctioned by the bride’s family, but they are actually conducted by a Muslim cleric in the presence of two witnesses. However, they are not officially registered and are not binding on the man. These marriages exist outside of the formal marriage contracts required by the Quran, even though there is usually a document containing some basic terms which is signed by the couple and two witnesses. Furthermore, though they were officially recognized under Egyptian law in 2000, women involved in these marriages have no rights to alimony or child support.

While temporary and non-public marriages such as mut’aa and urfi deny the partners the rights given to full-fledged Islamic marriages, there are even “real” Islamic marriages that are used to hide sex trafficking and prostitution. There are prominent examples highlighting this problem. One is of men from Arabian countries in the Gulf states travelling to places like India and Indonesia and marrying young girls from poor families. The families are given gifts and money and led to believe that their daughters will return to the husbands’ home countries to lead stable and respectful lives. Instead, the husbands spend a few days or weeks with the wives in hotels and then divorce them and return to their own countries. The women return to their familieshumiliated, disgraced, and often pregnant, with little means of tracking down the husbands or seeking alimony or child support.

Another example of troubling “legal” marriages includes unions involving Muslims who marry for immigration benefits. The couple decides to enter into marriages with the express purpose of one spouse sponsoring the other for legal status, and the other typically agrees to provide sexual services in return. This phenomenon is on the rise in the United States, and, in fact, often involves individuals who entered the marriages with the belief that they were the real thing. Again, if the exchange for one of the parties is simply sex for a benefit like immigration status, which clearly is an economic benefit, the line between a marriage and prostitution is blurry. As with other marriages discussed here, these marriages are in many instances hidden from public view and carried out as private transactions.

Finally, at the very end of this spectrum, there are the polygamous marriages that men carry out as a cover for an affair. Both mut’aa and urfi marriages can be polygamous, but even so-called “traditional” polygamous marriages are sometimes officiated without the consent or knowledge of the first wife, or the knowledge of the community. These are particularly easy to spot as affairs in countries that do not recognize polygamous unions, and the second or third marriage is therefore only officiated by a cleric from the community.

There is clearly a need for dialogue within the global Muslim community about the purpose and rules of marriage, and a need to soundly reject many of the unions discussed here. One of the primary reasons why Islam was revealed was to guarantee and clarify the important basic rights of women, and particularly their rights with regards to marriage, divorce, alimony, custody and related issues. We should not allow horrors such as sex trafficking, prostitution, and other sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages.

Uzma Mariam Ahmed is Contributing Writer to Altmuslimah




We have the Hijabi Monologues, I propose the introduction of Dating Dialogues. Dialogues between Muslims sharing candid stories of life, love, courting, dating and marriage. These individual stories exist and will undoubtedly tell a larger narrative: The story of American-Muslim cultural adaptation and assimilation, and the evolution of a very American Islam.

“Dating-like” options are evolving in the American Muslim community. Most courting couples take advantage of modern technology and communicate via text, email, chat and phone. Many also feel face-to-face interaction is necessary. Some couples seek parental approval up front to meet in chaperoned settings or have a nikah (legal Muslim marriage) soon after or in place of an engagement so they can meet and “date” before the civil wedding and celebration. Other couplesmeet independently and spend time on their own before speaking to their parents. A variety of permutations and combinations exist, and depending on personal situations, beliefs, and nature and nurture, they may all prove to be acceptable cultural adaptations.

According to Sheik Yassir Fazaga, we need to strive to “make Islam relevant” in America. Dr. Sherman Jackson echoes the sentiment, saying it is necessary to “create a new cultural matrixthat can survive in the broader context of America. [Islam in America] has to change for the religion to survive.”

Can a social construct for dating fall within this matrix? If so, will it be both flexible and inclusive to suit conservative and liberal interpretations alike? Will it be broadly embraced or shunned? What might basic guidelines include?

Based on informal conversations with other single Muslims about dating and getting to know someone, several key points surfaced:

• Compatibility, compatibility, compatibility – To find someone’s whose personality, world view, interests and morals align with one’s own is critical, so much so that overall compatibiliity should trump excessive emphases on religious practice, culture and education.

• Dating with intention – Establishing intention up front is helpful. Casual dating can lead to promiscuity, and so the reason for Muslim dating should be because there is a mutual intention to seriously consider marriage.

• Honest dialogue – Attempting to replace passive and ambivalent behavior with honest and straightforward dialogue is necessary. Couples desire the freedom to communicate with one another openly and extensively before deciding whether or not to get married. Some Imams, like Imam Muhammad Magid of the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center), encourage the use of apre-marital questionnaire to foster dialogue on important issues to be discussed before deciding to marry.

• Religion – For many, marrying a Muslim is a priority, but the level of practice is not always a top consideration. For some, “just a Muslim” or a “cultural Muslim” is good enough as long as the person “has a good moral compass.”

• Parental approval – Some seek it, some don’t. Parental sanction can add credibility to the interaction, but not everyone has or feels the need to seek parental approval.

• Intimacy– However you slice and dice it, pre-marital sex is off the table Islamically. Most people recognize this, but not all choose to follow it to the letter by doing away with all forms of physical contact.

• Taking one’s time– Suitors can falsely represent themselves. Observation and time are powerful tools. A person can ascertain a great deal by observing a person in a variety circumstances. Time reveals the layers of a person’s true character.

Before attempting to develop a construct for Muslim dating, two roadblocks need to be tackled: 1. Making dating the focus, not sex, and 2. Managing parental and community influence in decisions on dating and marriage.

Dating Minus Sex

The word “dating” is, in itself, a formidable challenge for the American-Muslim community. In 2006, Neil MacFarcquhar wrote a story in The New York Times on Muslim dating, or “Muslim Boy Meets Girl”. He wrote, “Many American Muslims…equate anything labeled dating with hellfire” because for conservative Muslims “dating is [considered] a euphemism for pre-marital sex.”

He crystallized the American-Muslim conundrum perfectly. More than a few American-Muslims equate dating with hellfire because of a well-known hadith (saying of the Prophet PBUH) whichwarnsthat when an unwed man and woman are left alone, Satan is the third person in the room (One counter comment from a friend was, “this belies each person’s sense of responsibility to think and act in a way that honors their beliefs and God’s expectations of modesty”).

American-Musilims find it difficult to decouple Western dating from pre-marital sex because the “dating-cum-sex” model is ubiquitous. Still, if we believe the concept of dating within the parameters of Islam has merit, there is value in delineating the terms and the acts.

Separating dating from pre-marital sex would require some critical thinking and analysis by Islamic scholars, as well as input from sociologists. It would be time and effort well spent though because Gen X and Gen Y Muslims seek reasoned answers on complex issues from people they respect and trust. “Dating is haram because I said so” rings hollow. Thoughtful, well-reasoned explanations of the halal and haram aspects of dating and why appeal to the sensibility of today’s young American-Muslims.

So why when the term is so loaded, does it need to be called “dating”? Acknowledging that the meet-and-greet cycle, currently called ‘assisted marriage’ or ‘matrimonial meetings,’ is indeed dating, removes its clinical façade. Deciding whom to marry is a deeply personal decision. Along the way, a person experiences a string of conflicting emotions: insecurity, doubt, anxiety, hope and excitement. Judging a person’s suitability when dating requires instinct and emotion, not just bio-datas. Thus by recognizing dating for what it is, the feelings and experiences associated with it will be validated and recognized as real.

Why is dating itself important? Dating can eventually lead to acceptance or rejection; and can be rough on the ego, heart and soul. However, if one is open to its lessons, dating can teach one a lot about onself; recognizing real and true love; and also the fragility and the tenacity of human bonds.

As a male friend, a convert to Islam, said to me, “I don’t think I would know [how to recognize] deep love if I wasn’t shaped by my experiences [good and bad] in the dating world…I think dating is an invaluable tool that every human needs to use to understand [themselves and the depth of] love [they can feel for another person] in ways they can’t without experience.”

Through dating, Muslims may be able to overcome some of the stunting of emotional development caused by gender segregation. Interacting with the opposite sex in a respectful, but very personal way, may foster a greater degree of comfort and ease between Muslim men and women, and may lead tonormalizing gender relations.

Dating dialogues can humanize our stories, struggles and successes. Helping us move away from dead-end rhetoric on nomenclature, to placing the spotlight squarely on the desired product, namely a good strong marriage.

Dating Minus Your Mom

The community’s anxiety about pre-marital sex is valid, but MacFarcquhar’s article in “The New York Times” also highlights the level of influence parents seek to have on their children’s relationship and partner-related decisions. Don’t adult single Muslims have the right to make their own relationship decisions? Shouldn’t they feel empowered to make decisions using intuition, judgment and independent observation, not guilt? Independent decision-making is critical for personal development. No one is denying that the older generation should guide, but some parents hold their children hostage to their own hopes and dreams.

The voices of American-born Gen X and Gen Y Muslims were muted in MacFarcquhar’s 2006 article, but no more. There now exist active commentaries on dating, and the related topics ofgender, marriage and sex. These commentaries can be found on blogs and online magazinesrun by and targeted to young American-Muslims. The interested reader can find thoughtful, honest and authentic content that is updated frequently, and propagated aggressively through the blogosphere viaFacebook and Twitter. The result– thousands of hits, hundreds of cross posts and numerous comments – a valuable look-see into the minds and hearts of young American-Muslims.

This shift is critical. Gen X and Gen Y Muslim Americans are coming into their own on issues like dating and claiming ownership of dialogues they deem important. This effort alone will ensure they are in the driver’s seat (not their parents and community leaders) steering the path forward.

Young American-Muslims find themselves walking the tight rope between conservative Muslim traditions and liberal American culture. Nearly all have “dated” vicariously through non-Muslim friends. Simultaneously many take their faith seriously and have a sincere desire to propagate the true message of Islam through thought, word and action. Gen X and Gen Y Muslims are well-positioned to pave the way for change.


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