When I was 21, my conservative parents found out that I was dating someone whom I found to be smart, funny, beautiful, endearing, and family-oriented. Even better, we were from similar backgrounds: being Malay and Muslim. The only problem? She—there you go, the someone in question was a young woman.
At 25, having gone to The Hague to pursue a Master’s degree, I came home ten months later with a man whom I’d met while looking for an apartment, with plans to marry by the end of the year. He had come to Singapore with me during my summer vacation to meet my family, and undergo a legal conversion at an organisation for Muslim converts (even though there wasn’t much else that he didn’t already know after doing his own reading).
My mother was married at the age of 23, and there I was, at 25, already two years overage. Having never brought anyone serious home, having disparaged most of the Malay men who never seemed to have the egalitarian qualities I was looking for, and topped off with being suspected of being not-quite-heterosexual, I think my aged parents might have been rather close to the edge of panic at the thought of me never getting married.
I can only imagine my father’s relief and thought process when he first found out about the Dutchman. He’s white? No problem. He’s not born a Muslim? At least he knows the five pillars and six articles. He doesn’t know how to pray? He can learn. He’s not circumcised? Easily done. At least he’s a man! Plus, he likes you and you like him!
That summer vacation ended with a proposal from my father to the Dutchman for us to do a ‘small and symbolic’ ceremony. His suggestion that we either get engaged or married before we went back to the Netherlands caught me completely off guard. After I explained to the Dutchman the local concepts of engagement (his family traditionally would come and ‘reserve’ me for marriage) and nikah gantung (lit. ‘hanging marriage’, an Islamic wedding without a public reception; sometimes without state recognition), we decided to get married but without telling the Dutchman’s parents (there was drama enough just from having converted). Since we didn’t have the required documents for a state-recognized wedding, we told my parents that we would do a nikah gantung.
That ‘small’ and ‘symbolic’ ceremony turned out to include 50 guests (my father’s wishes), searching for hours for specific traditional dresses in white (my mother’s wishes), and a full force of elderly men with authoritative white beards, who gave me some stunning pre-marriage advice such as obeying my husband in all rightful matters (clearly they had no idea of our feminist leanings).
The rebel in me relished in getting married outside the law: in secret, without any official papers and without half of our families knowing. But the level-headed part of me understood that things were not going to be smooth from this point onwards, and that the sooner I accepted that it would always be a little difficult, the easier it would be.
Just four days after the wedding, the Dutchman went back home, as planned (all he had wanted in Singapore was a vacation—I guess he got more than he bargained for). I spent two more months researching for my thesis and also spent my last Eid ul-Fitr in Singapore for some time to come. I endured questions from my extended family, who were all naturally curious but limited themselves to dancing around the elephant in the room: who was this tall and skinny white man that I was married to, without warning and in semi-secret, and where was he now that they wanted to gawk at him and ask him questions mostly centred around how “Muslim” he is?
When I got back to The Hague in September, I packed all my things, said farewell to my flatmate, and moved into the Dutchman’s house. This was a smart move (pun intended) for two reasons:
Contemporary Dutch society is overwhelmingly secular and people today expect years of cohabitation before a wedding (if any). It was acceptable and even preferable to live together for at least five years before getting married (if at all), and I knew a couple who had married only after 10 years! Some couples may also prefer the more discreet civil partnership, which provides all the legal benefits of marriage, without having to announce it to everyone and throwing a party. Others gave off vibes of contempt for religion, marriage before cohabitation, and worst of all, religious marriage.
In contrast, in Singapore it is virtually impossible to cohabit (either due to social norms against premarital sex, or prohibitively high rental rates) and most Muslim couples get married in their mid-20s. After a few years of living with their in-laws most of them are dying to move out into their Built-To-Order apartments. By moving in with the Dutchman after our secret marriage, his family saw it as a sign that we were serious about each other and were moving our relationship to the next, correct, level according to their social norms.
Also, my parents were extremely concerned about how others would perceive my (im)morality, as filtered through Facebook, if I had gone back to The Hague as a single woman, living independently, and dating a white Dutchman. My parents had previously met my Indonesian flatmate, with whom I was sharing an apartment, through video calls on Skype, and even received a 360 degree tour of our apartment. However, they didn’t seem too convinced that I wasn’t in fact enjoying my free and liberal life by immediately shacking up with the first Dutch guy I found (I would later discover that my father had given my younger brother the impression that I was indeed cohabiting with the Dutchman before we were married.)
Or at least they were not convinced that others wouldn’t think that about me, and they worried a lot about how our extended family and their friends would perceive me. By marrying the Dutchman, my family (and whoever else who knew about the marriage) stopped worrying about the possibility of us cohabiting and having sex outside of marriage.
Meanwhile, there was some tension with the Dutchman’s family after he told them that he was planning to convert to Islam. He had pre-empted them of his decision before he left for Singapore. This had caused a cryfest at his mother’s house, and at his father’s house, a barrage of quotes from Geert Wilders, a Dutch far-right politician famous for his Islamophobic speeches.
This hateful phobia of Islam from his family had always stumped me, and still does. While I had never made overt admissions of my religion to any of his family, such as requesting a space to pray at their house, or refusing meat on the counts that it was not ritually slaughtered, I had also never consciously hidden this aspect of myself. I remember sharing with them that I had worked in a mosque and an Islamic school, and even showed them photos of myself or my family members who were visibly Muslim (including but not limited to wearing hijab, for example). It was almost as if tolerance meant that it’s okay for me as a foreigner to be Muslim and never talk about it, but it’s definitely not okay for me to force this abomination upon their white Dutch son. Today, we adopt the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ towards his family—we avoid all topics related to Islam and Muslims, and if it inadvertently comes up (when talking about travelling to Cairo, for example), we quickly change the topic.
Eventually, things calmed down and we announced that we were “engaged” and planning for a wedding. My parents were hoping that we would do the state wedding and reception in Singapore about five months after the secret wedding. But it proved to be beyond our acting and diplomatic powers to squeeze an engagement and a wedding in five months. At the same time, I had been thinking very hard about whether I wanted to have a state wedding in Singapore or in the Netherlands.
My concerns about where we would register our marriage was the wedding process and then the legal and social implications afterwards, including the possibility of divorce and death (not to be a wet blanket here, but these are possible scenarios).
I was not at all keen to apply syariah law to our marriage, with what I perceived to be inequality and unfairness, as interpreted by the semi-government bodies of Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore (MUIS) and the Registry of Muslim Marriages (ROMM). As a registered Muslim in Singapore, these laws applied to me through marriage registration at ROMM, unless I declared myself to be a non-Muslim in order to have the Women’s Charter apply to me through registration at the Registry of Marriage (ROM) (clearly something that would not fly with any average Muslim family, let alone mine).
My idea of spousal equality under Islam was not the same kind of Islam as it had been institutionalised in Singapore. I didn’t think the Singaporean syariah laws were perfect (and remember, influenced by colonial British law) and they certainly didn’t fit my vision of marriage. In particular, the main problem I had was with the way that the Islamic marriage ceremony was conducted. I didn’t like having to sit behind the Dutchman during the secret nikah, and I didn’t like having it justified and explained away with “Islam”. I didn’t like my father passing on his “guardianship” of me to my husband instead. I didn’t like being preached to, by elderly bearded men whom I barely knew, that if I just obeyed my husband, I had a pretty good chance of going to paradise.
I was uncomfortable (okay, more than that—I absolutely disagree!) with polygamy. Hypothetically, the Dutchman could marry three more women under Singaporean law if we married in ROMM, and even if I said no, he could still seek legal permission to do so without my consent. Under Dutch law, polygamy is illegal. Most importantly, the Dutchman says that marrying another woman will never cross his mind, but to me it was more important to verify if a set of laws would indeed protect my rights and wishes, and not merely to take claims of ‘protecting women’ for granted.
Another issue was unilateral divorce. The divorce process is different for Muslim men and women in Singapore. Even though both parties eventually have to go to court for all the four types of divorce, a man may still divorce his wife by verbal repudiation. According to Dutch law, there was only one type of divorce, and both parties had to go to court to settle it.
The final straw was the issue of faraid, or inheritance law. As a Muslim convert in Singapore, the Dutchman had a different set of laws applied to him. For example, if he died without a will, his assets would be seized by the central authority and up to one third given to me, some to our children (if any) with boys receiving twice the share of girls, and the rest to the community. His parents would get nothing because they are not Muslim. It was perplexing for me to hear my father give this as an argument to me in favour of a registering in ROMM, since he had himself tried to circumvent inheritance decisions in situations that he found unfair to the female parties involved.
Why was I being pushed towards a system that clearly would not work for me, as it didn’t for some people around me whom I had seen suffer? Women who silently but tearfully accepted their husband’s second and third wives, or children who fought for their “rightful” share under faraid to the point of harassing their elderly parent? I had seen this happen in my own family. The same people who agreed with syariah law as a concept were also working around these problematic laws in practice by writing their own wills with specific conditions that went against the faraid laws.
This was not something I wanted for my own marriage. I wanted the Dutchman and I to be able to think for ourselves, and for our own situation, knowing that this will change materially and ideologically over time. We found that Dutch law could provide the most space for this to happen, and we prepared a pre-nuptial agreement in anticipation of some of the issues that we were worried about.
Not many people agreed with us however, because Singaporean Muslim community has been socialised to defer to authority and fear their own opinions – especially when authority appears in the form of an elderly male (beard optional) with a diploma from a Middle Eastern university, or official representatives of Islam like ROMM and MUIS. In our society, most people feel that the official interpretation of Islam is correct and should not be questioned by laymen. One friend considered marrying in ROMM as a way to “follow what syariah tells us”, without knowing the exact differences between syariah and civil law. Another friend who was in the same situation as I was, and was aware of the differences, decided to go along at the final moment so as “not to upset family and friends”. I was beginning to get the impression that marrying under syariah law was just a way to confirm to themselves and to others they there were indeed Muslim – making the contents and material consequences of the law itself irrelevant (at least in that moment).
I was told by parents and friends that I was reinventing the wheel—the religious authorities speaking on behalf of Islam had created this wonderful marriage system with all its inbuilt roles and obligations for me (like how I didn’t have to work, my husband should provide everything for me, and in return I only had to obey him and give ‘sexual access at all lawful times’), and here I was trying to recreate it in the Dutch system. To make matters worse, some people back in Singapore had picked up on the term “civil marriage”, hearing that I was going to go through one in the Netherlands.
The term “civil marriage” is loaded with socio-political significance in the Muslim community. Because the Singaporean marriage courts divide couples along religious lines (non-Muslim and Muslim), it is assumed that a couple marrying in the civil court are both non-Muslims, (or no longer Muslim), and that a couple marrying in the Islamic court are both Muslims. If a Muslim person has a “civil marriage”, it is assumed that they are no longer Muslim. Or that their marriage ceremony did not fulfil the Islamic requirements (a male guardian, two male witnesses, and a gift from the groom to the bride). Add a white foreigner to the mix, and you have a recipe for assumptions of apostasy gone wild.
I loathed this narrow-mindedness. Indeed, when I spoke to an official from ROMM, she could not even fathom the idea of Muslims who undergo a “civil marriage”, which is the case for Muslims who live in countries without parallel civil and syariah courts. Both ROM and ROMM recognise state marriage certificates from virtually all countries in the world (including the Netherlands); they consider these marriages as valid. This means that ROMM does indeed recognise the dreaded “civil marriage”, and that the fears and shame that Singaporean Muslims attach to it is simply irrational.
After waiting eight weeks for our marriage application to go through (being a foreign bride is suspect enough for Dutch immigration authorities), we finally performed an official wedding ceremony in a small office in the outskirts of The Hague. We wanted it as small as possible, so some of the Dutchman’s family was present, and some of my closest friends.
How happy I was to be able to stand with the Dutchman at the same table, hold his hand, and read our own vows to each other (like promising to buy him a popsicle if I ever made him cry). It was a vast change from the first, secret, wedding, and I was above all relieved to not have to hide anymore.
Even if I did have to pretend to be a blushing, first-time bride.