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Women-led weddings: No big deal

The big deal about the fact that a woman officiated at our Islamic wedding ceremony was that virtually no one thought it was a big deal. Apart from an impressed Jewish friend and a concerned Muslim cleric who asked whether there was a precedent for this, the only comments regarding Farhana Ismail’s performing the ceremony were compliments for her brilliant khutbah (sermon), which focused on the question of love as a ‘delightful illness”.

From the responses, one might think that women conducting Muslim weddings is normal practice in South Africa. It isn’t. June 25 this year was the first time a woman had officiated over such a ceremony in this country. The practice is not completely unheard of, however. There have been instances of women performing the marriage ceremony in parts of the Muslim world and, recently, in the United States.

The wedding also continued a recent trend within South Africa’s Muslim community: brides who prefer to represent themselves at their wedding ceremonies rather than having senior male relatives represent them, as has been the custom among Muslims for centuries. And, bucking another tradition on the gender front, three of the four witnesses to the marriage were women.

But most guests who commented on what they regarded as a unique wedding were not thinking of the gender dimension. Many were excited about the notion of a marriage contract and the various elements contained in an Islamic marriage contract. The two of us had negotiated our 10-page contract about a week before the wedding, in about 30 minutes. But these were issues we had been discussing — in abstract — for three years and our agreement on difficult questions such as gender relations was probably an important factor that attracted us to each other.

While Islam requires potential spouses to marry with a contract, this practice is greatly neglected in the Muslim community — including in South Africa. Our contract sets a foundation of spousal interdependence. It records our agreement on issues such as the marital property regime, dispute resolution procedures, sexual relations and even domestic chores.

There was also an inter-continental aspect to the wedding that generated a sense of novelty. The ceremony was broadcast live on the Internet so that Melissa’s Australian friends could watch it on a big screen as they partied with South African guests.

We met in Melbourne and remained in contact, becoming very close friends until, last year, we decided to upgrade the relationship. Having agreed on a date to get married, we divided the wedding planning between two continents and, a few weeks before the wedding, Melissa arrived in South Africa for the first time.

By then, preparations were already in full swing. In true activist style, a ‘wedding committee” was set up, operating on democratic principles (decisions were based on consensus), with an elected chairperson and minuted meetings. It was also communally catered, with most guests bringing an array of food.

The guests were, in the words of one activist, ‘the most eclectic bunch of people I’ve ever seen”. (And that from a man in a skirt.) Attendees included at least one woman in niqab (face veil) and a man in a kilt. There were activists, clerics and politicians, members of the Anti-Privatisation Forum and the African National Congress. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and atheists respectfully observed an Islamic ceremony and listened to the Arabic recitation of the Qur’an.

In an attempt to capture our different backgrounds and those of the guests, the ‘eclectic” character of the wedding extended to the entertainment on offer: poetry by Don Mattera, an Urdu song about marriage, a Somali wedding dance and recorded music that included Miriam Makeba, the late Luther Vandross, Egyptian-Nubian Muhammad Munir, Lebanese icon Marcel Khalife, Bollywood tunes and Sufi music.

Na’eem Jeenah is a social movement activist and president of the Muslim Youth Movement. Melissa Hoole is an artist and co-founder of a solidarity group in Brisbane called Fair Go For Palestine

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