Dowry in Islam and questions about painful intercourse

In today’s article, Salma responds to questions about dowry in Islam and to a newlywed bride about painful sexual intercourse.

QUESTION #1: I’m American and my betrothed is from the continent of Africa–I won’t say what country so as to protect our relationship. We are engaged to be married and both Muslim. He continually brings up the subject of the dowry that I will bring into the marriage. I come from a family of meager means; we are second generation Muslims as my grandfather was a revert to Islam. None of my older sisters had dowries and they all married Muslim men, albeit American Muslim men. I love this man, but he insists that the dowry is important to his family who is coming from overseas for the nikkah. They are very traditional and would not understand the fact that I do not have a dowry. How can I explain to him that is not my tradition?
—Nia


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Dear Nia,
There are many, many issues that require respectful and thorough exploration prior to marriage, even more so when the marriage is a cross-cultural one in which both parties bring different expectations to the table. For this issue, and the myriad of others that are intertwined with culture, it is helpful to first have a conversation about how the two of you plan to tackle cultural differences in general. What process will you use to determine which cultural values to bring into your relationship, and how will you decide which person bends on any given topic? Areas of cultural difference should be anticipated and discussed up front, with the understanding that each person wants to hold fast to his or her own traditions and will likely find it tough, at least initially, to practice cultural norms that are foreign. Each person must be willing to accommodate the other to the extent he or she is able. In some matters, one person may be doing most of the stretching while in other situations; the other person will have to show greater pliability.

Having said that, some issues are informed by culture, but also have an Islamic basis. For many Muslim cross-cultural couples who prioritize their common religion over their respective cultures, the Qur’an and Sunnah serve as their guide for major decisions. They can then negotiate the remaining cultural issues that are not rooted in religion with greater flexibility. You and your groom-to-be should discuss if this is the approach you would like to take.

This issue of the dowry is actually a very important one in the Muslim marriage process; the Qur’an identifies the dowry (mahr) as a gift that the groom offers to the bride (Qur’an 4:4). The mahr must be agreed upon and written into the marriage contract prior to marriage, as it is one of the conditions of a valid Islamic marriage contract. Even though Islam dictates that the mahr goes to the woman, she can, of course, give gifts to her husband and his family. However, neither side should demand gifts nor should people be expected to pay or contribute anything beyond their means. More information about the mahr and Islamic marriage contracts (including a sample contract) can be found in theIslamic Marriage Contract Resource Guide published as on online pdf by Peaceful Families Project. See PeacefulFamilies Islamic Marriage Contracts Resource Guide

If this Islamic perspective is not familiar to your fiancé and his family, I would suggest that you meet together with an imam or a Muslim scholar to learn more about mahr. If a face-to-face meeting is not possible, I recommend that you both do further reading on this topic. Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, author of the Muslim Marriage Guide (a useful book that I highly recommend all couples read prior to marriage), has a brief article online explaining mahr in more detail here

I wish you the best as you move forward in this process.

Question #2: I’m a new bride–my husband and I courted the halal way for eleven months prior to marriage and I love him immensely. However, I do not enjoy our relations. In fact, I don’t enjoy sexual intercourse at all, or making love as my husband calls it. It is painful, disgusting and I count the seconds until he is done. I understand that intimacy is part of my wifely duties, but I simply was not prepared for this part of marriage–no one talked to me about it at all. Sometimes I cry when we have relations and my husband becomes sad and upset. I don’t how to please him and myself at the same time. What can I do?
—-Anxious


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Dear Anxious,
Many new brides may find themselves in this situation, so don’t feel you are alone. Remember, from an Islamic point of view, intimacy is not just a “wifely duty” but also a mutual right for each spouse to enjoy. You can start by reading educational material about male and female sexuality to help you and your husband both have a better sexual experience. I would recommend the book When Sex Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Banishing Sexual Pain.

There are many reasons why some people may find sex “disgusting” and/or “painful.” These include: a lack of knowledge about male and female sexuality; negative messages we may hear about sexuality (i.e. sex is immoral or dirty or good girls don’t do that); physiological factors (i.e. tight vaginal muscles or vaginal dryness); technical issues (i.e. attempting penetration before a woman is aroused or trying specific positions that are painful for a person); and past negative sexual experiences (i.e. sexual assault or rape).

Because unhappiness in the bedroom will quickly seep into other areas of a marriage, it is important to have a candid conversation with your spouse, however reluctant you might feel. Together, you must first identify the cause of your discontent. I would highly recommend seeking professional help here. The first step would be to see a gynecologist or primary care physician who will determine if the problem is a physical one. If the doctor rules out a physical problem, then it’s time to see a marriage or family counselor trained in sex therapy who will help identify any underlying emotional issues that are contributing to an unsatisfying sex life. While many women describe the first few times they engaged in sexual intercourse as painful, it is uncommon to experience chronic pain if a woman is relaxed and aroused. Unfortunately, if the first experience is incredibly painful or stressful, then a woman tenses up the next time around, anticipating pain once again. Being tense, in turn, prevents the vaginal muscles from relaxing, and guarantees another painful experience. A counselor will help you to determine if this vicious cycle is what you are experiencing.

You are right to seek help rather than sweep this critical issue under the rug. Inshallah, you will be successful in resolving the problem and you and your husband will enjoy a mutually satisfying sex life.

Salma Abugideiri is a licensed professional counselor with almost 20 years of experience. She is also a founding board member for Peaceful Families Project, a national non-profit organization dedicated to ending domestic violence in Muslim families. More information is available at www.peacefulfamilies.org and www.wellnessthroughcounseling.com

This post was originally published on May 8, 2014.

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