The problem is that marriage contracts often take away rights women otherwise have under Islamic law. This includes the right to file for divorce: Almost all the men in my family and in my husband's family cancel this provision before handing the contract over to the woman's family. It's considered impolite, and a breach of the trust that Sehgal talks about, for a woman or the relative representing her to insist otherwise.
Women also forfeit the right to other protections. For example, in Islam, a woman is promised a certain amount of money (in keeping with her husband's income) usually given to her if she chooses to divorce. The money is meant to provide her with some degree of financial security, especially if she leaves her husband. Despite the excellent logic behind this right, most men frown upon it. They put into the contract measly amounts, such as $1 or $10, simply to fill in the blank. And women don't ask questions. An elderly aunt of mine takes great pride in saying that she agreed to 1 cent when it was time to marry off her daughter. "I had faith in Allah, so 1 cent was all I asked them to put down," she said.
But Allah is the one who gives women this right, I protested. My aunt dismissed me.
Qaisera Sheikh, vice president of the Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Pakistan, says that she has seen women suffer because of their passive attitude toward the marriage contract. "Later on in their married lives when things did not work out, these women realized they had unknowingly given up their right to divorce, for child support, etc.," she said.
In my case, as in the case of most women I know, my husband's family suggested an amount for the marriage payment. My father agreed to it. I signed at the mosque without knowing how much money I would have in the event of divorce. My husband did not cancel the provision allowing me to file for one. Still, if he had, I would have been able to do nothing about it.
And at moments when my husband and I have fiery arguments leading into spiteful fights, I find myself wishing I had added to the contract provisions like child support and financial assistance in the case of a separation or divorce.
Thankfully we have a beautiful marriage, so such regretful thinking is rare. My husband and I don't talk about the signed papers of our marriage contract lying at the bottom of a cupboard in his office. But it remains a reminder of the time when I failed, in my own eyes, to ask for my rights.