Wife beaters set the tone as backward Imams threaten to overwhelm 21st Century Muslims
by Mona Eltahawy
To appreciate the absurdity of what it can mean to be a Muslim woman today you need a few fools
Enter stage right: German judge Christa Datz-Winter, whose claim to infamy was her refusal to grant a fast-track divorce to a German Muslim woman who had complained that her husband beat her. The judge said both partners came from a “Moroccan cultural environment in which it is not uncommon for a man to exert a right of corporal punishment over his wife,” and she cited passages in the Qu’ran that she said sanction physical abuse.
How cruelly ironic for the unfortunate wife who tried to make the most of western laws that are always waved in the face of Muslims as the pinnacle of civilized behaviour if only we would learn from them. Here was a Muslim woman who really did need to be saved from an abusive husband – not the ‘Evil Muslim Man’ imagined as lurking in all our closets, but the real thing – a brutal man who beat his wife. Right at the moment when she pushed to take advantage of those laws, the Muslim woman who really did need to be saved was kicked back – by a woman no less – into the arms of the very misogyny that the West is always trying to save us from.
So we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Judge Datz-Winter might be the most maligned multiculturalist du jour, but in time we will celebrate her for so bluntly – if unintentionally – setting on fire the house of cards that so many of my fellow Muslims struggle to keep up around women’s rights.
One need only type ‘Islam + wife + beating’ as a search item on YouTube to learn that Judge Datz-Winter’s idiocy finds plenty of ugly echo in the chorus of fools otherwise known as our zealous imams and scholars trying to decide exactly how much harm to a woman their God allows. These unfortunately all-too real and evil men point to the very same passages in the Qu’ran that the judge used to turn down the fast-track divorce.
But here’s the difference – Judge Datz-Winter was removed from the case and could face disciplinary action. By contrast, who is disciplining our imams and scholars? Unless we – Muslims – push and clamour for the removal of the men who advocate wife beating in the name of the Qu’ran then to remain a Muslim woman today would require nothing short of mental gymnastics.
To beat or not beat
I was born into a Muslim family and I choose to remain a Muslim, a proud one. But I cannot believe that God considers two women to be equal to one man, for example, as advocated by those who say it takes the testimony of two women to equal that of one man. To do so would require a turning off of my intellect, stooping to a pretence that I reject. And I cannot believe that God has given a man the right to discipline me if I am “rebellious” or “disobedient” as our YouTube imams and scholars claim with their various sermons on what can be used to exact that discipline.
The verse in the Qu’ran to which the German judge referred – and over which our YouTube imams and scholars wax lyrical – is undoubtedly controversial. It has been taken to mean that a rebellious wife should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and beaten unless her behaviour improves.
The controversy has revolved around the Arabic word daraba – does it mean to beat? What should be used to beat a woman? Some imams and scholars think they can dilute the verse by saying it should be nothing thicker than a twig but they do women no favours because symbolic or not it is the idea that a man can discipline his wife that is at the heart of their various interpretations. They rarely mention that the Prophet never struck a woman.
I refuse to waste time and energy on whether it means a man can or cannot beat his wife. If that is what it meant at one point in history – at the time when the Qu’ran was revealed – it no longer need apply. There are many things in other holy books that believers have let go, in recognition that they are no longer acceptable in our world today. The Qu’ran is no different. And many of our imams and scholars have indulged in such contextualizing of their own, many times and regarding many issues. But there is always one exception – they are fixated on women and on nailing our feet to the 7th Century instead of leaving us be in the 21st.
One of their biggest ruses is that old axiom: “Islam is for all times and places”. My answer: yes, the essential message of Islam is for all times and all places, but there are some things in the Qu’ran that even they would agree were specific to their time and place. Their retort would be that I can’t pick and choose but must take it all or leave it. The “all” that I would have to take of course would be determined by them, and it is full of what they have picked and chosen. And the most conservative among our imams and scholars – who are often the ones most zealously embalming women in the 7th Century ethos into which Islam was born – are the same imams and scholars who insist on interpreting Judge Datz-Winter’s Qu’ranic verse to mean a man can beat his wife.
Don’t take it literally
For an example of how some of our scholars are quite happy to contextualize, look no further than their attempts to reel in violence in the name of Islam. They try to defang the very same passages in the Qu’ran used by Osama Bin Laden et al by saying they must be placed within their historical context. The verses that have to do with the way Muslims should treat the “infidel”, we are told, were addressed to the nascent Muslim community, beleaguered and surrounded by enemies. We are not meant to take those verses literally today, some of our imams and scholars tell us. I salute that spirit in them and extend it to that troublesome verse. That verse was addressed to a 7th Century Arabian community in which relations between the sexes were very different from those in place today and so we are not meant to take that verse literally either.
It could be that simple. But we have wasted time and energy circling women and how our imams and scholars want us to be. From the near-obsession with the way a woman dresses you would think that half the Qu’ran was dedicated to a woman’s wardrobe whereas there are in fact just two verses that deal with a woman’s dress.
Last year, I wrote an essay about an encounter at an Islamic conference with a conservative Muslim man which taught me much about my own liberal stereotypes of conservative Muslims. I ended the essay with reference to my surprise that the man shook my hand. Astoundingly, conservative Muslim blogs which published my article played host to an unhealthy number of comments suggesting I had lied about the handshake. The comments missed entirely the point of my essay – how we stereotype each other - and focused instead on the handshake.
My faith resides deep in my heart, but it has been hard at times to reconcile my heart with my mind, which too often recoils at the blatant misogyny that centuries of male-dominated interpretation of my religion have wrought. We are taught that Islam gave women rights more than 1,400 years ago that made them the envy of women in Europe’s Dark Ages. When European women were mere chattels, Muslim women gained the right to inherit and own property. But now the descendants of those women who envied Muslim women in the Seventh Century have moved far ahead. Where is that spirit of the early days of Islam?
One of my favorite stories from Islamic history – apocryphal or not – goes like this: women at the time of the Prophet Muhammad complained that the revelations he had received so far addressed “believing men”. What about us, they asked? Soon after, the Prophet began receiving revelations that addressed both “believing men” and “believing women”.
Discrimination by YouTube
If God included us in the narrative, who has kept us out? Answer: The YouTube imams and scholars and their ilk around the world who have let the Muslim world down. Their apathy and disinclination to speak out against misogyny in the name of Islam long ago turned many of us off and encouraged us to move beyond them and towards setting our own agenda. The Muslim world is large and diverse. Issues that concern women in Saudi Arabia – where they cannot be admitted to a hospital without a male guardian’s signature – are very different from those in Malaysia, where women recite the Koran on national television.
Things are changing and it is largely thanks to the efforts of Muslim women who are reinterpreting our faith and standing up to the centuries of misogyny. And thanks are due also to the liberal Muslim men who are our allies. A few days before news broke of the fiasco in Germany over Judge Datz-Winter’s misstep, Iranian-American Laleh Bakhtiar was profiled in the New York Times for her translation of the Qu’ran that is being published this month. Her new translation does not include the word “beat” but substitutes for it “to go away”. As I said, I do not care for the semantics performed around that verse because I do not think it is a husband’s right to discipline his wife. But the New York Times article brought to light interesting challenges to our YouTube imams and scholars.
For example, Egypt’s mufti Sheik Ali Gomaa told the paper that Qu’ranic verses must be viewed through the prism of the era. “In our modern context, hitting one’s wife is totally inappropriate as society deems it hateful and it will only serve to sow more discord,” he told the New York Times.
The newspaper also spoke to Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian-born law professor and Islamic scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, who often challenges conservative and ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam. He has concluded that the verse refers to a rare public legal procedure that ended before the 10th Century. It is only by challenging the hatred for women that fuels our YouTube imams and scholars that we can prevent the foolishness of the likes of Judge Datz-Winter.