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Diversity and Unity

Islam in Southeast Asia

Monks at Angkor Wat (Beggs/Flickr)

Monks at Angkor Wat (Beggs/Flickr)

Islam in Southeast Asia


Family Life, Marriage, and Divorce

Southeast Asians attach great importance to their family lives and as a general rule relationships among family members tend to be highly valued, strong, and enduring. In many Southeast Asian societies, children feel that they can never fully repay their parents for either the“gift of life” or the countless sacrifices they have made to raise them to adulthood. As with bonds between parents and children, relationships among siblings are of tremendous moral and emotional significance and are capable of withstanding a good deal of conflict. To quote a Malay adage about solidarity and quarrelling among siblings, “Water when slashed will not be severed; part a chicken’s feathers and they come right back together.” The idea here is that ties among siblings are characterized by what anthropologist David Schneider (in another context) has referred to as diffuse, enduring solidarity, and are not easily jeopardized or denied.

Southeast Asians generally take it for granted that everyone wants to get married and have children, and that everyone will eventually do so. (This expectation does not pertain to the small minority in Buddhist countries who join monasteries or nunneries, undertake life-long vows of celibacy, and thus forego marriage altogether.) One of the questions commonly put to a stranger in their late teens or early twenties is, “Are you already married?” (emphasis added). If one has never been married, the only acceptable answer is “not yet” (a simple “no” willnot do), which acknowledges the legitimacy of the expectation as well as one’s intention to marry. In order to be considered a full (social) adult, one must not only marry but also have (or adopt) children.

In former times, most marriages were arranged by parents or other relatives—or matchmakers—and in many cases husbands and wives had never interacted socially or even seen each other prior to their weddings. Part of the reason for this is that, especially in Islamic areas, standards of propriety discourage unrelated males and females from interacting with one another after the age of eight to ten or so. Arranged marriages are less common at present but many youth still feel that choosing an appropriate spouse is a responsibility that is too important to be left up to the individual. For reasons such as these, they welcome the input and assistance of others.

Most parents regard the weddings of their children (particularly their daughters) as among the greatest joys in life. Wedding ceremonies and accompanying festivities are usually the occasion for large public celebrations. Many people (family members, as well as friends and neighbors) are invited to these celebrations and large numbers of guests are typically fed in the context of lavish feasts.

Islamic law permits men to have up to four wives simultaneously as long as they can deal justly with each wife and provide each of them with adequate material support. Partly because it is very difficult to meet these latter conditions, the vast majority of Muslim men in Southeast Asia and elsewhere have only one wife at any given time. In these and various other respects (such as the basic expectations informing the roles of husbands and wives), Muslim and Christian experiences of the institution of marriage are quite similar.

Divorce is generally seen as unfortunate and is frowned upon, especially if there are children involved; it is also regarded by Muslims as sinful in the eyes of God (Allah). At the same time, most people recognize that some marriages do not turn out as expected and that it may be better for all concerned if a couple seeks a divorce. Islamic law allows men and women alike to obtain a divorce but provides men with far more prerogatives in terminating a marriage. A man need only recite a standardized divorce formula (“I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you”) to effect a legally binding, irrevocable divorce. Options such as these are not available to women. However, if a woman has not received financial support from her husband for more than four (in some areas, six) months, or has been seriously mistreated by her husband (or if her husband turns out to be impotent or insane), she may petition the court for a divorce. Most cases brought to Islamic courts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere concern civil matters bearing
on marriage and divorce (as opposed to criminal offenses of one sort or another) and are in fact initiated by women, partly because men need not deal with the courts in order to terminate their marriages.