And the Patriarchy Lunges: the Purpose of the Wali

Dear readers, there are few “Islamic” [?!] practices that I reject entirely (actually I can only think of this one), but if I were to toss out any–any at all–it would be the practice of “giving away” the bride. Fuck that noise, seriously.

This is one of those things that is mandated nowhere in the Qur’an, and one of those FEW things that I believe originated at least from good intentions. According to practice, women who had been previously married do not need a wali to look for a husband for them, but they need one to be present for signing the marriage contract. (A woman who has never been married customarily “needs” one for both purposes.) If I didn’t know better the objective seems to be to keep women from signing anything they would later regret. If a wali, or guardian, is not present the marriage is invalid just as it is if the woman does not consent. (A woman’s guardian should not make a promise of marriage without her knowledge. –Al-Bukhari)

Unfortunately, I do know better.

A hadith that is attributed to the Prophet (narrated by Abu Musa) states that a woman who is married without a wali renders an invalid marriage–in the right context (kidnapping, coercion, etc. which were in fact extraordinarily common at the time) this is empowering. But much like the gendered formulation of witness in economic contracts that was later applied to every configuration of court, the establishment of the power of the wali has particularly ensured that women do not maintain the authority of individual consent.

In a society in which the blessing of your family is already coercively important, the last thing anyone needs is the resounding singular authority of their own consent confiscated by the supposedly obligatory presence of a wali. I hope that you do not delegate that power to anyone else. In fact, specify that in your marriage contract. State that the woman contracts the marriage on her own behalf and refuses to relegate this authority to a wali. And don’t sign that thing without it. You can illegalize polygamy in your marriage contract (and that is something that is actually even mentioned in the Qur’an) so you can sure as hell do this too, considering it is cultural and, accordingly, adjustable.

(Slightly relevant: Disapproval extends to being walked down the aisle or anything that symbolizes I’m an object to be passed on, whether a part of 5th Century Arab culture or 21st Century Western. When the original purpose is forgotten/disregarded the practice is incompatible with Islam.)

There seems to be a unanimous (among only men of course) declaration that a wali can only be male, but predictably that was pulled out of the rear end of a goat.

16 thoughts on “And the Patriarchy Lunges: the Purpose of the Wali

  1. Nahida- this comes at an apt time. I am struggling with this concept. I had a mini fit because instead of saying my own vows it was suggested that I announce at the mosque I have given my dad the authority to marry me off. I vehemently disagreed (naturally) and will rather not get married than buy into some half baked “empowerment” (women aren’t usually present at the ceremony). But at the same time because of this culture it’s like I am stripping my dad of some honor so I feel really bad. Because I love my dad endlessly and don’t want to hurt him in any way.

    I am honoring him by inshallah him performing the ceremony. And my mother being part of the ceremony (she might opt out because she is shy).

    I think this is a happy compromise.


    1. Oh, I know that struggle; I’ve only felt a little of it and it’s already overwhelming, but I imagine it will be so difficult to severe ties to cultural visions of honoring the parents’ role in the marriage–I’m glad you found a solution! (I find the idea of anyone else but yourself reciting your vows for you absurd!) I hope everything is easy for you inshaAllah.


    2. rootedinbeing

      When I was getting married I was told the whole purpose of the wali was so, should I have trouble in my marriage, he would be the one I could go to. He was presented to me as someone representing my interests, and who would always be on my side throughout my marriage should I need someone to go to if there were problems. I said all my own vows, but was told if I didn’t want to talk the wali would speak for me. It was more like “I got your back.” Of course, I knew absolutely nothing of a wali’s role, or the history behind it when I was married. I had no idea what the symbolism was.

      Yourself being fully aware and educated on the symbolism, kaybee, I can certainly empathize with the mental gymnastics you are doing.


  2. Thank you for this (as for all of your other posts), Nahidooo!
    You know what bugs me? Hanafi law doesn’t require the presence or consent of the walee for a valid marriage. Surprisingly enough, even Ashraf Ali Thanavi’s misogynistic-at-best book “Bihishte Zevar” admits that! But he contradicts himself frequently and says that a marriage without the permission of the parents is unacceptable and this and that.

    And South Asia is supposedly Hanafi … yet, many Muslims believe that the differences among the 4 Sunni schools are “minor.” Hell, no, they’re not! The walee issue is a perfect example: I’m in an illegitimate marriage according to three schools but in a perfectly legitimate according to the other! That means the children would be illegitimate, too, and you’re telling me that’s a “minor” difference?


  3. Interesting. In Jewish tradition, both bride and groom are escorted to the wedding by both of their parents. So I never felt that I was being given away, or anything of the sort- more that my family and my husband’s family were building a connection.

    On the other hand, while a woman’s consent is required in Jewish marriage, traditionally, her acceptance of the ring and/or not objecting to the ceremony qualifies. I don’t know how to weigh that against the institution of the wali.

    I am entranced by the idea that one’s mother might serve as your wali, rather than a father, uncle or stranger. That sounds like a fascinating way of turning a patriarchal institution on its head…


    1. It’s the same that in Islam a marriage in invalid without the woman’s consent (also sometimes interpreted by her not objecting), which leaves the practice of having a wali all the more questionable. Even in the circumstances described (kidnapping etc.) in which the wali is said to be empowering, the larger community should recognize the marriage as invalid based solely on the woman’s consent anyway. So what is the use? The only way the practice would be empowering (& only in effect) is if it tilted the privilege socially designated to men into the reach of women to use as voice–not in the woman’s own right–in a society that through its mindset routinely disregards the opinion of women.

      Of course, if even that were the case, a marriage would be valid if a woman consents and invalid if she doesn’t with no regard to the wali’s “consent” if that person were truly present only to legally and financially guide her.

      I do agree the mother acting as a wali might be effective at some level to subverting patriarchy, but I believe that in the end it is still succumbing to the patriarchal tactic of relegating a woman’s individual consent to a guardian or representative.


      1. rootedinbeing

        Agreed with you, Nahida – whether male or female for a wali, it is placing the woman into the role of someone incompetent, unable to speak for oneself. It actually makes it feel more like the transfer of property.


  4. FloweryHedgehog

    My personal gripe with the wali system has to do with the fact that my own wali used his power to commit precisely the type of abuses he was supposed to be “protecting” me from. So yeah, I have approximately NO trust in that system.


  5. mary

    The wali thing is part of the same system of beliefs which says a woman’s testimony is not as reliable as a man’s, therefore someone must do her thinking for her as she is stupid. The only thing I would want a wali for is to make sure the potential groom is who he says he is, can afford to be married to me, and has no skeletons in his closet. Come to think of it, a private detective can do those things. If i’m suppose to be a full partner in marriage, then I should bear full responsibility for choosing whom I will marry. Full stop.


  6. Muslim Feminist

    Thank you for this article. :) It’s a shame that in lot of countries- even some western ones, the wali is being forced on a lot of women. Weddings that I go to always has some Wali (always the bearded old guy) “give the bride away”. I personally feel that personal wedding vows between the couple is important done by themselves. I hate the idea of a woman being silent when she is asked if she accepts this marraige because it makes her look like a shy little lady who is in under a man’s control. Imagine a bride saying, “Yeah man, I qubool this rishta!” before dancing and every misogynist man in the wedding is shocked . Haha.
    Oh I read some of your other articles and discovered that you don’t like Abu Huraira too. He did one hadith that stated if a woman arranges another woman marriage, she is an adulteress? WTF lol.
    I have been looking all over for the internet for some wise person to write some stuff against Hadiths (esp the anti-women one) and I found your blog. I love the effort you make in informing and reassuring some muslims that their interpretation is not faulty. I have seen some muslim women being attacked for being “westerized” and a feminist just becase she doesn’t have a misogynist mindset.
    So yeah, thanks for this article and the other articles you post! They are awesome! I can’t wait to read more from you!


    1. You can do anything in the marriage contract. The contract itself is a construction of social convention–that’s why it exists widely in practice even though the composition of the contract isn’t mentioned in the Qur’an.


      1. Speaking of traditional marriage contracts vs the Qur’an, just reread part of Scott Kugle’s book on Homosexuality in Islam where he talks about how the marriage contract was constructed by jurists analagously to a contract of sale. Yet another reflection of patriarchal assumptions of the time being imposed on neutral Qur’anic language.



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