A Not So Ideal Deal: Perspectives On Sexism In “Islamic Marriage” by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Marriage in IslamOne topic that emerges from the discussions I have with other Muslims and people in general relates to marriage. Starting with, I don’t agree with marriage. Not because I think married life is negative but because, under the prevailing patriarchal logic, marriage is not conducive to full relationships. Patriarchy has also polluted Islam and, therefore, the way in which gender relations are understood as part of a Muslim’s life including the concept of marriage.

Since I converted to Islam, I have received 11 marriage proposals. I have refused them all. Many people have seen in my attitude a sign of pride and rebellion. They are wrong. I do not rebel against married life, but against the terms in which it is presented to me and the role I am supposed to have because I am a woman in it. Manly-man-male ideas about women, prejudices related to the fact that I am not “pure Muslim, but converted,” “not Arab,” and stereotypes about Hispanic-Latina women, have all played a major role in the deep indignation and disgust with which I have rejected each prospect.

According to Islamic Teachings, you join your partner to develop a life in common based on Rahma (mercy), Mawada (love), and Sakina (tranquility). Marriage is a recomendation, not an obligation. All the marriage proposals I’ve received started with a kind, understanding and caring Muslim man declaring himself “open minded” and “willing to have a relationship based on mutual support and honest communication.” But as I said, started. After some time progressed, the real dimension of things began to be revealed.

From all those proposal in which there was some progress, there are three that stand out because they were the most insulting. Not only because they hid harsh sexism and evidenced offensive ideas about me, especially the idea I am somewhat more pretty and useful than a doormat. Worst of all is that the gentlemen thought they were offering me the best deal in the world and that I should accept it because, it is “sunnah [prescribed]” and all women who are “good” Muslims would accept. These are the three most memorable proposals, in brief:

1.The Pharaoh and the Commandments
“You woman, listen to me: I’ll be your husband and I’ll give you whatever you want. I’ll give you my life as a gift. I will protect and take care of you. I will be loyal. I understand your activities, so you are free to do them, but you must ask for my approval (?). You must give me the password to your Facebook, your email and your Skype and as your husband, I will have access to your private life in the broadest sense of the word. I don’t want you to have male friend, even to talk anymore with men. I don’t want you to share your pictures in social nets or wherever. You are not allowed to question my decisions. You will come to my bed every time I need it. You won’t refuse me as a man. Your mind belongs to you, everything else will be mine.” NEXT!

2.Be my Second Best
“Well, I don’t think you’re in position to reject me, because you are not a 25 years old woman;  also you’re a woman “with a past.” I offer you to be my second wife. At your age, you are not too useful to have my babies, but I appreciate your beauty and cherubic face. I’ll pay a dowry of XXXXX dollars if you assure me that you won’t cheat on me. Because, you know, you’re a Latina and everyone knows that all Latinas are cheap….” NEXT!

3.But, you’ve got the Ring
”But I love you!! Yes, I have been seeing another woman all this time. She is 24 years older than me… well, I slept with her while I am with you … I didn’t think it was important to tell you… But, why are you getting angry? … It’s my personal life! … I don’t have to give explanations to you! … Why are you so selfish?… I’m not marrying her am I? I chose you! …. You’ve got the ring!” NEXT!

Want more?

– “I know you went through College and Postgraduate, but you wouldn’t want to work after marriage, right?” “You’re pretty but you ruined it all when I saw your profile on LinkedIn: I don’t need a woman too educated. Just someone to clean and have my kids”

– “Having kids is really not an excuse to get fat as a wife;” “What’s your jeans size?””After all, you have that thing that makes me love a woman a lot: a cup D.”

-“Actually this only can be a temporary marriage, because I am already married in Pakistan, but I feel so alone in this new country;” “Better we stay friends, because the truth is I have talked with my parents (after 2 years) and they prefer I marry a pure Muslim;” “I married last week. I forgot to tell you.”

Uff!

I do not like the assumption many men have that a woman should not or is not in a position to refuse a marriage proposal. These men assumed, wrongly, that a woman is just looking to get married and that she is willing, a priori, to accept anything. This idea implies a passive conception of women regarding marriage and a one-dimensional view of their contribution as a human being in Islam.

But men are not the only ones to blame. We can’t forget that sexism is the product of an education in a system we share and that it starts at home and is reinforced by religious belief. Umma [nation or community] has its part to play too.  I think even when it is not fard [duty] or mandatory, all the business around marriage in muslim communities – marriage counselors, literature about how to catch a man and what a Muslim woman should do to get married, all the preaching that says marriage is the straight way to “Complete the Deen” or increase your piety – reinforce the stereotype about what a Muslim woman must be and the idea that marriage is a duty and that you can’t be a good muslim or an acceptable woman if you don’t get married.

The first thing a newly Muslim woman is told after doing the Shahada is that she MUST get married and put on the headscarf, otherwise she’s not really serious about her new faith. Not, studying the Quran. Not, acquiring a basic knowledge on the foundations of Islam. Not, learning the procedure of performing each one of the 5 pillars. No. Get a man and cover.

This blackmailing is highly damaging, sexist, and reductive of our position as women in Islam: first, it bypasses the focus regarding spiritual development and what the Quran itself states as the priority – seeking knowledge; second, it creates an artificial burden on women to perform a role that they may not have considered when entering Islam, which can add extra anxiety to the already complicated process of starting a new life in a new faith; and third, it sends the message that the only thing a woman can expect from herself as a Muslim is to find someone who validates her as believer through a wedding and until that happens she’s not “perfect.”

Considering the conservatism and rampant misogyny within Muslim communities, a woman who is not a virgin, not young, who does not fit within the canons of traditional beauty, who has children or is divorced, works outside the home, has a career or aspirations to excel in public life, has little chance of marrying within Islam. Instead, it is more likely she will be judged by her lifestyle and accused of being “inappropriate” and will be is isolated.

“Islamic marriage,” as it is generally understood nowadays, with a sexist and patriarchal vision of women, undermines the unique and beautiful experience of a spiritual awakening in a woman, because it sends a message to women that if they can’t get married, or don’t want to get marry for any number of reasons, they are not worthy before Allah – and this is very cruel.

Misrepresenting the teachings of the Quran to drive women into passive roles, adding to this the pressure for marriage, can lead to personal tragedies: I have seen firsthand cases of women converts who, in response to these recommendations, have married without obtaining prior knowledge of the Quran and Marital Fiqh (Laws on Marriage in Islam): they have been cheated, dragged to bigamy, abused in domestic violence, dismissed and expelled from their houses or abandoned once they become pregnant, without the support of the Umma and the Sheikhs, once so eager to make these women someone’s wives, to provide support or further guidance .

Don’t we have already enough messages telling us women we’re not worthy for ourselves and that it is bad to have autonomy? Do we really need to reproduce this within Islam?

Islam is a message of self empowerment and accountability. That’s the example given to us from many Muslim women along the history of our faith and today. It would be important to remember this to develop a new discourse on dating, relationships and marriage, regarding the diversity of women who become Muslims, their particularities and preferences. Insisting on us knowing our rights and duties within our faith before taking any step is core. Is important to remember that our relation with God is personal. God trusts us because we’re worthy, we alone with our hearts and souls. We’re worthy for ourselves.

What about me after this?

Well, I still want to get married, but I am unsure I will marry a Muslim man. All what I know is, if I get married someday, I’ll seek a union based on the universal essentials according to real Islamic Teachings: Rahma (mercy), Mawada (love), and Sakina (tranquility). I will marry a man for whom I am valuable to for my heart and not for my beauty, age, or fertility. A man confident enough to treat me as a person and not as an object.  I won’t choose a man for his money or properties, but for his humanity. I don’t want to take anything from him–I expect his respect for what I am able to do for myself. I want to look in his eyes and see me reflected back as an equal. I don’t want to be the precious jewel he puts in a locked box. I will be a woman: simple, natural, non-perfect, but always close to him, out of a free decision.

For Love’s Sake.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.

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Categories: Belief, Community, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Sexuality, Islam, Muslim Spirituality, Patriarchy, Power relations, Qur'an and women

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36 replies

  1. Very glad to have found your post.
    Welcome sister, you will find there are numerous like-minded women within the Islamic faith that believe in empowerment and dignity.
    You nailed it right!!! “Don’t we have already enough messages telling us women we’re not worthy for ourselves and that it is bad to have autonomy?”
    Blessed be.

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  2. This reminds me of a few Gay Christians I know. I can only imagine they enjoy being persecuted in some bizarre way because their church just can’t come to terms with same-sex stuff unless it’s between clergy and hidden. I can’t see Islam ever having a femenist agenda. What do you get from it that makes it worth cataloguing the misery that ‘modern’ Islam leaves in its wake?

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  3. Thank you for sharing this, Vanessa. I would like to share this reading by Valerie Tarico, about the complicated relationship between freedom and religion: http://awaypoint.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/is-the-hijab-a-symbol-of-diversity-or-a-symbol-of-oppression/

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  4. Guard your heart and aim high. As Louise said in “Thelma and Louise,” “You get what you settle for.

    Besides, the guys you described give (rhymes with “grassmoles”) a bad name.

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    • Thanks. That is. In every experience with the suitors I learned something new about me that made me love myself more and understand that a relationship based in hierarchy, inequality, dependance and obbedience was not for me. Because I am not and never was that kind of woman. As long as I got to know me better, I was more confident about to say NO. It could be difficult to resist the pressure of environment to marry, specially when this hangs over you as a divine duty. But if you know your worthy is not in the heart of others, but in your own heart, the locus of control of your life change and you can deal with pressure and patriarchal messages about your role as woman.

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  5. Holy cow–you’re living a horror story! If you really want to get married, I hope you can find a man who won’t treat you like the doormat. Until then, take care of yourself, do what you need to in your life, and stay single! It sounds like the single life is healthier for you.

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  6. I really enjoyed this post- was laughing a lot at the Horror Show of Suitors; “I married last week, I forgot to tell you.” Egads! Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of toads…

    Sometimes I meet 30-something women and their ideal “mate” sounds like something out of a knight in shining armor fairy tale. You, on the other hand, have qualifiers that are completely reasonable, and I am praying that you find this person. Many years ago, I made a similar prayer to God for myself, and through the most unusual of circumstances, I found him!

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    • Thanks. I am glad for you. Actually now I am totally out of islamic system. I practice my religion in private and this is not something i care about the person I date. I focus more in his atribute as human instead of the way he prays or if he prays. Making a since instrospective to myself I found out I will never admit as a part of the deal of being married that my husband has authority on me according to the principle of taa. No. never. Never will consent also the trade of my sexuality for a dowry. There are still some slight signs of slavery in islamic marriage conditions that I am not comfortable with.

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  7. asalam aleykum sister

    i reverted not to long ago. can you suggest where i can read about the space where rahma, mawada and sakina are positioned in islamic marriages.

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  8. There are too many men like this out there. The stories sisters tell! Have you had a chance to look at Salaam Love? It’s the men’s first person accounts about love and sexuality. The companion book to Love Insh’Allah. I have it, but haven’t been able to read it yet. From a peek it looks pretty honest and pretty diverse in views.

    http://loveinshallah.com/tag/salaam-love/

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  9. @Vanessa
    Thank you for this wonderful article! I’m quite new to feminism as a Muslimah and I am learning so much about myself as a Muslim woman and my role as a Muslim Feminist with articles just like this! The experience you’ve had with these marriage proposals is unfortunately all too common! I don’t blame you for rejecting every single one of those! I can even imagine them sitting down with you and making their demands as if it is their divine right to make them!! Good on you for knowing what you want and not being pressured by other Muslims to rush into a marriage only to discover it to be a mistake! You are a great role model! x

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    • Thank you for read and comment Maryam. I have the conviction that every women is a source of inspiration to other. Even when we disagree there is a lesson about empowerment, sisterhood, emancipation we can take. I always say that each one of us is her own shero, her own releaser and architect. We just have to give a voice to that huge source of natural wisdom that have been silenced under centuries of invisibilization and speak out, moving forward our autonomy without hesitation.

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  10. I tried to send you an email message because I am traveling to Chile and Argentina next month to visit my son and I was hoping we could meet.. amina (awadud@vcu.edu)

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  11. Vanessa, thanks for both your stories and your singling out accountability as crucial for Muslims. Amina, among others, has written about how patriarchal logics placing men over women in family and society run precisely counter to scriptural insistence that each human being is accountable for its own deeds. I wish you well in your quest to find and live harmoniously with a partner who recognizes your worth and shares your life, rather than governs it.

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    • Thank you very much Kecia for your feedback. Honestly it was awful for me to go through all that. I am glad that every day, there are more people getting awareness about the difference between Hislam and Islam. I hope my little contribution not only can help other sisters to take a stand against pressures and bad suitors, also to reflect on what kind of messages are receiving on their position as women in the community, being able to question them and empower themselves around their spiritual rights as believers.

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  12. marriage is the straight way to “Complete the Deen” or increase your piety – reinforce the stereotype about what a Muslim woman must be and the idea that marriage is a duty and that you can’t be a good muslim or an acceptable woman if you don’t get married.

    i have heard that being married is sunnah and encouraged. it doesn’t fully make sense to me.
    where is it written.
    does being unmarried make me less of a muslimah?
    what about those wo/men who feel they would serve the ummah best by not being wives or husbands?

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  13. Mash’Allah hermana Vanessa! :) Welcome to the sister/brotherhood! This article is written as if you had read my thoughts. I’m extremely thankful and pleased that I was born into a Muslim family (however, I chose Islam actively in my teens without really telling anyone) and that I grew up with multiple cultures in a non-Muslim country. It made me see and realise the flaws in most Muslim cultures and the truth about Islam. But also, the flaws of modern Western society that adverts itself as being some sort of perfect system for mankind. See…I now know that Muslims are the last people one should look at to find the truth about and accurate picture of the faith that is Islam! Sister Vanessa, I’m glad that I decided to study Islam completely independently before opting out or in. Your article really reminded me of why this is so important. So thank you, jazak’Allah!

    Your experience is unfortunately not unique in today’s Muslim world, and it’s dramatically different from what Islam preaches. One only has to look at prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.w) first wife, Khadija (r.a). If we Muslim women decided to get inspired by her, most Muslim men would run to their mamas in despair! :D Yet imagine the prophet actually choosing a woman of such strength and power.

    You’ve met some truly rotten eggs! These are the kind of examples that I constantly hear Muslim scholars bringing up as horror examples in lectures about marriage and more. No educated Muslim…I repeat, NO literate Muslim should see you as a “lesser” Muslim because you’re a convert, non-Arab or an experienced woman. The Quran brings this issue up many times. The wrong notion about Arabs being superior for instance.

    What you’ve encountered is just a certain kind of men. And they exist EVERYWHERE. They’re not exclusive to Muslims but you probably understand this. What’s worse, this kind of men tend to show up everywhere and anywhere! It’s the whole “empty barrels make the loudest noise” principle. Also, since our world generally has been and IS pretty much male dominated (yes Western too!), you will find this type of men are very very common. In Muslim cultures that keep their culture higher than faith, this type of men rule big time. Add to that cultures where illiteracy is common and most people don’t understand Arabic and therefore can’t understand Quran the way it’s supposed to be read: with full understanding.

    However, it’s changing! :) Rapidly. Many Muslims are waking up (esp. women) and it’s not a coincidence that the scholars are now bound to bring this issue up in lectures, khutbas (Friday sermon) and seminars (check Youtube). I see that more and more “born Muslims” for ex are taking responsibility, taking control and doing the exact opposite of traditional Muslim society’s rule of “Do without questioning cause questioning is disrespect to elders”. It’s aggravating a lot of elders and men in particular (and traditional mothers! ;) ) but…since this new generation has the knowledge (studied Islam), the elders are having to beack down and accept. The wave of Muslim match sites are a great indication and proof of this. All of a sudden, it’s okay to find a partner through these sites or a “Muslim marriage event”. This was IMPOSSIBLE only a decade ago and ppl who used it, hid it even from relatives. Muslims are no longer finding a husband/wife only through the limited and very flawed and expected system of parents/relatives.

    So…thanks a LOT for your wise and highly accurate “diagnosis” of the current state of being a Muslimah and having to deal with lots of problems surrounding this. Big hug to you!

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  14. Now, to my personal state. There are so many things you’ve written that are just spot on! I mean, I’d have to quote half of the article if I were to tell you how many times I thought “Exactly!” while reading. <3 Sis, please know that you're not alone. I'm 31, single and guess what…yes, virgin. And very proud of that and grateful to Allah swt for giving me the strength to put my spiritual belief before my physical desires. One would think I'm regularly patted on the back, saluted and encouraged by fellow Muslims for being this strong but…..instead, I'm mostly treated like an alien, abnormal or mentally impaired person. Parents saying they're embarrassed, siblings saying "But WHAT exactly do you want?", thus pressurizing indirectly. :( Due to this, I've had to limit my surrounding company and I honestly avoid a lot of Muslims. I'm not happy about it cause we all need support in our community but for self-preservation, it's a necessity.

    When I was a teen, I thought it was just my surrounding, "mainstream" Western society that looked down on people who choose to stay chaste or single. Well, quickly into my 20's I found out Muslim cultures work by the exact same principles. Only with the difference that they marry to gain "a status of being someone" while Western mainstream society "just" requires people to have a boyfriend/girlfriend to be counted as "someone".

    Also, I feel that women are a lot to blame for this sorry state of affairs. A man has never asked me about my civil status within 3 seconds of meeting me. Not even after several meetings. Women however…..sigh! "Assalaam aleikum sister! How old are you? Are you married?" even before knowing my name. This happens even with non-Muslim women. The first question is always about the boyfriend and then kids. It makes me depressed and angry. Why! Because it seems like that's all they care about. How about who I am as a person!? How about where I live or what I like to do?

    In my parent's country, it's even worse. Women introduce themselves as "mrs.This" or "mrs.That". Followed by their husbands's name! :O. Then they proceed to blabbering about their daughters and whether they're engaged, married or getting proposals. And at work/university/gym…most girls/women talk about what they did last weekend (boys, boys, club, club) or what they're gonna do the coming weekend (boyfriend, club, boyfriend hunt, party). The ones who aren't hitched are treated like 2nd class citizens or just not welcome in the "hip, confident, popular and NORMAL" crowd. So…..I feel alien in both "camps": the mainstream Western society AND the local Muslim, female gatherings.

    Lucky for me, I do have a select crowd of 4-5 Muslim girls/women who understand me, who understand the faith and what a person's true value is. But boy were these friends hard to find! Vanessa, all in all, I don't stress about marriage anymore. And since coming into my 30's, I can honestly say that I'm pleased with my current state. I saw so many girls who got married (including my sister and cousins) due to pressure, stress and that "time's flying" thing. Some even because of the classic "all my friends are married". Today, they are bitter, worn out and some have serious health issues :(. I wish they were happy, so that maybe I'd feel more inspired to go the same path. But instead, I've realised that once you give in to pressure and don't listen to your heart, you will have to live with whatever consequences that come your way. In fact, I'd like to suggest that it seems most women just give in. They kill that inner voice and succumb to social, parental, PERCEIVED religious pressure and more. I've heard so many Muslim women succumb due to serious misconceptions like "You have to get married to be a serious Muslim". But no, God looks at one's heart! He does not love you less just because you're single!

    That's why I feel so lucky, blessed and eternally grateful that I have an independent relationship with God, without any middle-hands. I feel God in my heart. As the kindest, the best friend anyone can have! I'm glad I don't let any imam/pastor, parent or random friend do the talking for God. I pray and I talk to God in my heart. And I never feel alien, unwanted or frozen out by Him. All of which I do among the majority of people. Especially people who claim to be all "holy and on the right path or "free and independent". Yeah right…somebody on the right path does not feel entitled and big enough to walk around and tell fellow believers how to best live their lives. They do not judge and bully others. And somebodt truly "free" doesn't constantly define themselves by the social and popular media requirements (just look at the whole "babies as accessory" phenomena).

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    • Salam sister. I am sorry I didnt reply before.I want to thank you for being generous in sharing with me your experience. As is clear I think, mysogyny and sexism are well spread around and this would not be a so serious problem if it doesnt cause too much pain, insecurities and self censoring, I am glad as women we are breaking our silence and building common grounds, even when this can be difficult because as we can act as agent of freedom to each other, we can be also agent of control to keep ourselves and others within the frame of patriarchy. At being 40 recently, I decided I will cultivate my own garden and write my own story. If someone wants to crop with me, he is welcome but I wont be waiting and will keep myself creating the rest of my life I have imagined. hugs

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  15. Vanessa, you put this very accurately and succinctly. It encapsulates the entire Muslim male attitude towards women. However, more tragic than that is that unfortunately, to me, it seems as if most Muslim women, find themselves in a situation they cannot change due to the way Islamic societies are structured. As a result, they have imbibed the very patriarchy that they are subjected to, as the “god-given way”; the way way things should be, that is.

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    • Sorry, it took me EXACTLY one year to answer this. This is very true, sometimes is not enough to come out of an oppresive marriage or a judgemental community because all the society is shaped like that and there is not alternative discourses. But nothing starts to change until it starts and in this Muslim women voices are relevant. Maybe the changes won´t be authomatic but being able to challenge structures and narratives that has been taken as “divine true” is a good point to begin with.

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  16. Dear vanessa.
    I just want you to know that not all muslim men like you said. You just haven’t met a right muslim men. Maybe not yet. But islam not makes the woman as a servant. But as a precious thing. I hope you will learn more about islam (what the right) not what does exist now bcs many ppl leaves the right and just take a few point.
    For information, i’m muslimah, single, and hv a job too. I have sister and she was married. But sshe was iving her own life happily. Even my sister is a doctor and her husband not treat her like a servant.

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  17. Dear Venessa, Im so ashamed for those primitive selfish and namely muslim man who wanted marry you…. Im not going to write so uch or discust beceause real islam forbite man bring up woman past, real islam woman has privicy and she is equal and even more important then man and as a woman she has the paradise under her foots.
    so please do not give up islamand on your hopes just because for some idiots.
    May Allah be with you and make your wishes come true Insaallah.

    Like

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  1. Un acuerdo Menos Ideal: Perspectivas sobre el sexismo en “El matrimonio islámico” : Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente | Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles

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