‘Contrary to what critics of Islam may say, domestic violence is not permitted in Islam. In Nour’s domestic violence booklet, their Islamic advisors and consultant shuyookh explain the ‘misunderstood verse’ “… and beat them” (An-Nisa:34) and clarify that the Prophet (SAW) explained it as ‘dharban ghayra mubarrih’ which translates as ‘a light tap, as light as a feather stroke that leaves no mark’. […] we know that the Prophet (SAW) was the perfect example of the teachings in the Qur’an and it is clear from his seerah that he never struck a female, child or servant despite it’s ‘permissibility’ which would denote that it is something to avoid.’
This article written in SISTERS magazine by Nour’s Khalida Haque exemplified what it is, in specific, that constitutes domestic violence. Interestingly, under the sub-section, ‘Domestic Violence and Islam’, she mentions how critics misconstrue the meaning of passages in Surah An-Nisa to prove the inherent misogyny that Islam supposedly encompasses. Perhaps, however, the topic of how the practitioners of Islam use the same interpretation as the critics, in order to condone their aggression towards the women in their lives, was not explored to its full extent. On a recent trip to Pakistan, I spoke –very generally- to a few sisters who painted a vivid picture of the society in which they lived. The idea was not to create an East and West binary of any kind, but rather, to gain perspective of how DV is viewed in other parts of the world. Growing up in the West, violence in the home is something that is immediately flagged as an exploitation of justice, as unacceptable and crude. But how is it received in a space where culturally, relations between the husband and wife- no matter how publically aggressive or volatile- are not to be interfered with? Of course, there is subjectivity from family to family and home to home, nonetheless, I collected fragments of conversations, and just recently, began to turn them over in my mind.
My Urdu was still kicking into gear when I asked the first sister about domestic violence, and I stammered and struggled to translate the concept to her. The sweet eyes beneath her furrowed forehead suddenly lit up when she finally understood what I meant. It turned out that this sister in particular did not know the word for it in Urdu either, because to her, it was not an obtrusive unjust concept. It was an accepted norm within her immediate community, the struggling working-class of Lahore’s Model Town. ‘It’s just something that happens’, she laughed, ‘It happens every day. Just this morning I heard that a man a few blocks over killed his wife and boy because he had a drinking habit and couldn’t afford to feed them. So he just killed them. Trust me this happens.’ I looked at her skeptically, so she continued, ‘Look, if you don’t believe me I can bring you the morning paper. But this is so common that most go unreported. It’s only people like us who know the extent. It’s just something that happens.’ She went on to explain that circumstance, disrespect towards women, and the consensus that women were the inferior sex in Pakistani society were the root causes. She recounted stories, one after the other, of how many times she had been assaulted on the street by strange men, followed home day after day, and in one instance, barely evaded a kidnapping. ‘The girls I know, we get married so at least there will be someone to look out for us, pick us up, drop us off, so that we don’t have to go through this every day.’ From what I knew about this particular sister, who both wore hijab and internalized it, this conversation was, to say the least, painful; her only want was to study, which was proving to be an impossible task under the circumstances. ‘I think it’s the poverty around here that turns men crazy. I think they feel helpless, so they take it out on us.’
My mother later explained to me that there is, in fact, the concept of domestic violence in Pakistan, and reassured me that it is something that is accounted for. She claimed that the families, if not the police, would surely intervene if they thought that there was abuse within a marital relationship. Nonetheless, this did not stop me from wondering how a country, which consists predominantly of Muslims and was very much built on the premise that Islam would be openly practiced and implemented, could have such a high tolerance towards the maltreatment of women. My thoughts led me to another conversation that I had had with a sister, who told me that her ex-husband justified beating her on numerous occasions, on the basis that Islam condoned the notion that women belonged to their husbands; which made her at his disposal, and more importantly, under his control. But if control became the subject, then perhaps the problem did not stem from a discrepancy in cultural practice, but from the misinterpretation of Islamic text, by men who seemingly skim-read the parts of the Quran in which women were given rights and honor (to the extent that heaven was said to be laid under her feet) and skipped straight to the parts where men were given divine permission to strike their wives. Could the idea of patriarchal supremacy still reign, perhaps latent or subconsciously, in the psyche of some Muslim men, or dangerously, in men? Jacqueline Rose, in her recent article ‘Nigella Lawson, Charles Saatchi, and the ugly face of patriarchal power’, conveys this phenomenon in the most eloquent manner,
‘Masculinity in thrall to itself is ruthless. As feminism has also argued, it is a colossal act of self-deceit. When a husband assaults a wife, it is often his own weakness – the fact that men, thank goodness, cannot in fact control all women all of the time – which he is trying to repudiate. This kind of power has to trash suffering in order to hold on to itself, which is why, threatened by a woman with its loss, he will push her face into the dirt.’
It is a question, maybe, of what would then stop a man from pushing his wife’s face into dirt, make him unwrap his hands from her throat, to stop him from hurting what he was made to protect. It is a question that men need to ask themselves, and answer honestly, if only in the secrecy of their own minds. They say that they believe women to be their equals, but do they truly believe it? Or is the idea that it is ‘just something that happens’ ingrained unconsciously within men and women alike, the world over? When we marry, do we marry with the expectation that at some given moment, we may strike, or be struck, or that we may be silenced? And if so, then why so? Is it because of scripture or culture? Is it because of our psychology or society, or is it a combination of all of these factors coming at us in one blow? Why are so many Muslim families hurting all over the world because of bruised hearts and angry fists? Is it to retain power, or to assert an authority that was never a given?
Out of all of this fog, this generalization and speculation came one certainty. That the Prophet (s.a.w) never hit a woman, a servant, or a child in his entire life. He was not only the best of examples, he set out the rulings and guidelines and showed the Muslims how to operate within them. And with this knowledge, we should feel a sense of shame, because in his blessed presence, no one would have the permission to think that ‘it is just something that happens’. In his presence, no man alive would dare strike a woman. Perhaps, the next time we think about what we do behind closed doors, the next time we refuse to get involved because of our cultural norms, we should think about what we would do if the Prophet (s.a.w) was watching us, and perhaps realize, if only momentarily, that his Creator actually is.