By Ammar Awais
Forced marriages – fairly common in our society – create unhappy unions that result either in bitter separations or lifelong misery. While both men and women can fall victim to forced marriages, it is more often the women who are forced, coerced, or pressured into accepting a husband against their will. On the other hand, if a woman expresses her interest in a man as a potential husband, it is typically frowned upon, and considered immodest and “un-Islamic”. In reality, as we shall explore in this article, Islam not only gives each person the liberty to choose their spouse, but also adopts an uncompromising stance against forced marriages and outlaws them completely.
Reasons for Forced Marriages
Societal pressures and considerations are perhaps the most common reason for forced marriages. In some families, marrying outside one’s caste or ethnicity is considered unacceptable. In other cases, the financial status of a prospective spouse is unduly prioritized over other important factors. Parents could also seek to benefit, such as attaining a higher social standing, by marrying their son or daughter into a more influential or wealthier family. Moreover, parents are sometimes hesitant to reject a marriage proposal for fear of vengeance or severing of ties by the other party, even if their own son or daughter is against the wedding. It could also be that the parents are simply biased against their son or daughter’s choice of spouse, and wish to marry them off elsewhere to stay within the bounds of conventionalism.
Prohibition of Forced Marriages
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ has prohibited forced marriages in these words: “Seek the permission of women with regard to marriage.” (Nasai) The Prophet ﷺ further clarified that neither the previously married woman nor the unmarried one can be forced into wedlock: “A woman who has been previously married should not be married until her permission is asked, nor should a virgin be married without her permission.” (Abu Dawud) Regarding an orphan girl, he stated, “…If she refuses [marriage], the authority of the guardian cannot be exercised against her will.” (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi)
It is, therefore, clear that a woman, regardless of her age or prior marital status, cannot be married off without her consent. Once, someone opined to the Prophet ﷺ, “O Messenger of Allah ﷺ, a virgin may be too shy to speak.” He replied, “Her consent is her silence.” (Ibn Majah) Her silence must not be misinterpreted, however. A woman could also be silent because she is too hesitant to reject a proposal and disappoint her parents or go against their decision. Hence, parents must take care to attain their daughter’s unambiguous consent, and discuss any favourable proposal with her in detail, rather than leaving her with no choice in the matter.
It is true that parents often have their daughter’s best interests in mind and that her Nikah is generally not valid without her guardian’s presence. However, neither of these can be used as a pretext by the guardian to override her will or dismiss her choice for a husband. As the Prophet ﷺ declared, “A woman without a husband has more right to her person than her guardian…” (Muslim) Parents must, therefore, act as facilitators, guiding their daughter and advising her, rather than imposing their decision upon her.
Legal Consequence of Forced Marriages
A marriage that lacks the consent of either spouse is invalid as per Islamic law. This is proved by no less than three incidents during the time of the Prophet ﷺ as follows.
1) Abdullah bin Abbas narrated: “A virgin girl came to the Prophet ﷺ and mentioned that her father had married her against her will, so the Prophet ﷺ allowed her to exercise her choice.” (Abu Dawud)
2) It was narrated from Khansa bint Khidam that her father married her off after she had been previously married, and she was unwilling. She went to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and he annulled the marriage. Then she married another man called Abu Lubabah bin Abdul-Mundhir. (Nasai, Ibn Majah)
3) Aishah narrated that a girl came to her and said, “My father married me to his brother’s son so that he might raise his own status thereby, and I was unwilling.” She said, “Sit here until the Prophet ﷺ comes.” Then the Messenger of Allah ﷺ came and she told him. He sent word to her father, calling him, and he left the matter up to her. She said, “O Messenger of Allah, I accept what my father did, but I wanted to know whether women have any say in the matter.” (Reported by Nasai)
It must be noted that in each of these instances of forced marriage, the Prophet ﷺ did not ask for the woman to be divorced – he simply declared the Nikah to be baatil or invalid, implying that the Nikah never occurred. Furthermore, he did not ask the woman for any proof or evidence regarding her lack of consent to the marriage at the time. Nor did he blame the victim by inquiring why she did not speak up or came to him before the Nikah. These teachings of the Prophet ﷺ are far from being implemented in Muslim societies today. It is also unfortunate that hardly anyone speaks up for the Shariah ruling on the invalidity of forced Nikahs to be made part of our legal systems.
Choosing a spouse is one of the most critical decisions in a person’s life. Moreover, in our society today, remarrying following divorce or widowhood is far more difficult – especially for women – than it was in the Arab society at the Prophet’s ﷺ time. Hence, it is all the more important to have either spouse’s consent to the marriage for a happy life. Parents must ensure that their daughters can freely discuss any marriage proposal with them and that the parents are easily approachable, and empathetic towards the daughter, if she has a prospective husband in mind.