Islamic law and domestic violence Attorney discusses empowering women through egalitarian Islamic family law

By John Minnis

Legal News

Some 145 members and supporters of the Arab American community got together recently in Dearborn to discuss Islamic law and domestic violence.

The four-hour luncheon program, "Islamic Family Law & Cultural Training for Peaceful Families," held Feb. 25 in the elegant banquet room at Habib Cuisine on Michigan Avenue was hosted by ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) Community Health and Resource Center.

Mistress of ceremonies Mona Makki said the purpose of the symposium was to discuss the overlapping jurisdictions of Islamic and secular law, to gain a "better understanding of the whole framework of Islamic law."

"This is truly a historic moment for our community," said Abdallah Boumediene, director of operations for the ACCESS Community Health and Resource Center. "We are breaking ground in areas that have been hush-hush, taboo. As a community, this is proof we are coming of age.

"Ignorance is our common enemy. We are finally talking about issues that are affecting our families."

Joanna Ladke, domestic violence prevention coordinator for ACCESS, added, "We need a zero tolerance in every aspect of domestic violence. We must prevent domestic violence everywhere."

The keynote speaker and presenter was New Jersey attorney Abed Awad, who was selected as one of 10 Lawyers of the Year 2002 by the Lawyers Weekly for his groundbreaking decision enforcing the mahr provision contained in a Muslim marriage contract. He is a board member of Karamah, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and very active politically in the Arab American community. He is a member of the Arab American Institute and is the co-chair of the Arab American Democratic Caucus in New Jersey.

"The accomplishments and awards of this man go on and on," Makki said of Awad.

Referring to the multi-course meal served by Habib Cuisine staff, Awad commented, "You came here not to listen to me but to take advantage of this great Arab hospitality."

"I'm basically talking about empowering women," he continued, "through the use of egalitarian Islamic law."

Awad discussed "classical" and "modern" Islamic family law.

"America is an unfinished project," he said. "Every culture that came to America placed its stamp on America, and Islam will as well. Islam is part and parcel of the fabric of America. Islamic law plays many roles in American communities."

"Islamic law is comparable to Western common law," Awad said. "Norman conquerors took many Muslim legal concepts from Sicily."

Reason by analogy is the most used methodology in Sunni jurisprudence, he said. For example, though not expressly mentioned, marijuana would be forbidden for the same reason alcohol is: the detrimental effects of intoxication.

He pointed out that under seventh century classical family law, Muslim women were allowed to enter into contracts and inherit and leave property. A third of early Islamic history was dominated by women. Early imams were women, he said.

"Something happened in the 15th and 16th centuries that caused a regression," he said. "My commitment is to empowering women, and I'll take the flack for it. As an attorney, that is my goal."

Awad said marriage under the Koran is not like the mystical aspect of Christian marriage. "Muslims look at it as a marriage contract, but not a business agreement," he said.

He recommended, however, that every Muslim marriage also adhere to secular law.

"Michigan says if you don't have a marriage license, your marriage is null and void and you have no rights," he said.

Awad, who grew up in a Palestinian village, said polygamy is an overstated criticism of Islam.

"I lived in this village," he said. "One guy had a second wife, and we all had a problem with him. It is not common."

Under Islamic law, a man can marry a non-Muslim, but a woman cannot. The rationale is that the child is expected to follow the father's religion. "But what if the (non-Muslim) father agrees to raise the child Muslim?" Awad asked.

In Arab countries, the religious courts govern the family, he said.

The Muslim marriage contract gives women tremendous leeway in negotiating terms.

"We need to empower Muslim women to use the marriage contract to minimize the damage," Awad said. "You can make sure you have a right to divorce under certain conditions, a right to make financial decisions, own a bank account, determine place of domicile, restrict the number of children, furnish education and determine not to live with his parents, 'not being the maid and servant' of your mother-in-law."

"This is the great melting pot of the world," he said of America. "It is not always a straight path, but we have the right to get us back on the right track."

The concept of marital assets did not exist under classical Islamic law, Awad said, "but neither did it in the United States before the 1970s."

There are three ways to get a divorce under Islamic law, he said: at-will, judicial decree and mutual dissolution.

"A lot of judges who receive these religious decisions are confused," Awad said, "because these terms are not readily translatable."

He urged women and attorneys not to consider the Muslim marriage contract a prenuptial agreement.

"A lot of attorneys who do not understand Islamic law," Awad said, "describe this as a prenuptial agreement."

Prenuptial agreements, he said, require full financial disclosure and full, independent legal counsel for both parties.

"How does that compare to a Muslim marriage contract?" he asked. "It doesn't."

He further recommended that any Muslim woman getting a divorce get the religious contract resolved before the civil dissolution is complete. Where marriages occurred in foreign counties, Awad recommends the divorce be filed with that country's embassy in the United States as well. Otherwise, the woman will still be considered "married" in the country of origin.

Awad strongly recommended that no woman take part in divorce proceedings in foreign courts.

Lastly, the Islamic law attorney said that domestic violence is not a religious problem but an individual one.

"I think Islam has a zero tolerance toward domestic violence," he said. "The problem is not religion but some men. What we need to do is re-emphasize zero tolerance for violence."

Published: Tue, Mar 9, 2010