An obedient wife? The idea behind a growing movement

Over the last couple of months, controversy has erupted over a growing movement that argues it is a woman’s Islamic duty to be sexually available and satisfying to her husband. The group calls itself “The Obedient Wives Club,” and it continues to gain traction in south-east Asia and aims to expand to areas of Muslim settlement in the West.
Many commentators have asked: what is to become of marriage and marital roles in the twenty-first century? With many gender justice campaigns and women’s interpretive movements spreading throughout the Muslim world, there have also been calls by various groups for a more conservative view of gender roles within marriage, citing societal breakdown as beginning in the breakdown of traditional family structures.

Over the last couple of months, controversy has erupted over a growing movement that argues it is a woman’s Islamic duty to be sexually available and satisfying to her husband. The group calls itself “The Obedient Wives Club,” and it continues to gain traction in south-east Asia and aims to expand to areas of Muslim settlement in the West.

The story first gained traction when, on June 5, the AP reported on the OWC opening a chapter in Malaysia. The backers of the Malaysian chapter were said to come from a group called the Global Ikhwan, and they claimed a membership of over 800 women. The battle lines were drawn offline and online, with Facebook groups popping up, such as “We do not want sexist nonsense from Global Ikhwan.” The same report noted that one of its founders was particularly outspoken about the importance of sex within marriage. She said, “Sex is a taboo in Asian society. We have ignored it in our marriages but it’s all down to sex. A good wife is a good sex worker to her husband. What is wrong with being a whore … to your husband?”

Reports indicate Jordan as the country where the first OWC chapter was founded. Furthermore, the group has a presence in Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore as well. A Reuters article put the OWC’s argument succinctly. “The club argues that sexually fulfilled men are less likely to stray, which would curb the rise in breakdown in marriages.” In other words, the group aims to address social issues related to divorce and prostitution by emphasizing wives’ sexual availability as a response.

In the discussions circulating on news websites and blogs, the group has largely been dismissed as representing a fringe political ideology without much traction in the countries in which it is based. Other criticisms have written off the OWC as a reflection of deeper prejudices against women across religious groups. These responses dodge a fundamental question: is the Obedient Wives Club emerging completely unexpectedly in its support from some Muslim men and women?

The answer, seemingly, is no. There are deeper social attitudes being expressed by this small group of pro-obedience activists. A few weeks ago Makruf Amin, “of the influential Indonesian Cleric Council, said he saw no problem with the club as long as it does not violate the principles of Islam. “As long at it just wants to teach good things to the wives, that is OK,” he said.” Such an important religious figure’s opinions should not be ignored, as they indicate a segment of the population supports the mission of the OWC.

More broadly, in contemporary Islamic thought there are arguments made for wifely submission and obedience. One example comes from SunniPath, a website including questions and answers on Islamic law and practice. When someone asks whether is it permissible for a husband to force his wife to have sex, a scholar responds and says the following about the rights of marriage:

Among these obligatory rights is the right for each spouse’s physical needs to be fulfilled through marriage. The only difference is that the husband may ‘demand’ this, while the wife cannot, though she too has the right to due complaint and to seek that her rights be fulfilled.

This perspective on men’s sexual needs and women’s duty is also reflected in Shelina Janmohamed’s recent piece on Kuwaiti politician Salwa al Mutairi’s argument for providing sex slaves to frustrated men. Rather than disavow these perspectives as having any traction amongst Muslims, it would be better to wrestle with what role religious interpretation has on marriages.

A representative of the Obedient Wives Club told Agence France-Presse: “We just want to ask all the wives to be obedient wives so that there will be fewer problems in our society.” Can Muslim opponents and supporters of this idea of wifely obedience find terms to debate on, or will flare-ups like this continue to characterize media coverage of marriage and Islam?
Abbas Jaffer is a Contributing Editor to Altmuslimah.

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