ISLAM AND WOMEN

Clothes Aren't the Issue

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By Asra Q. Nomani
Sunday, October 22, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. When dealing with a "disobedient wife," a Muslim man has a number of options. First, he should remind her of "the importance of following the instructions of the husband in Islam." If that doesn't work, he can "leave the wife's bed." Finally, he may "beat" her, though it must be without "hurting, breaking a bone, leaving blue or black marks on the body and avoiding hitting the face, at any cost."

Such appalling recommendations, drawn from the book "Woman in the Shade of Islam" by Saudi scholar Abdul Rahman al-Sheha, are inspired by as authoritative a source as any Muslim could hope to find: a literal reading of the 34th verse of the fourth chapter of the Koran, An-Nisa , or Women. "[A]nd (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them," reads one widely accepted translation.

The notion of using physical punishment as a "disciplinary action," as Sheha suggests, especially for "controlling or mastering women" or others who "enjoy being beaten," is common throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, I first encountered Sheha's work at my Morgantown mosque, where a Muslim student group handed it out to male worshipers after Friday prayers one day a few years ago.

Verse 4:34 retains a strong following, even among many who say that women must be treated as equals under Islam. Indeed, Muslim scholars and leaders have long been doing what I call "the 4:34 dance" -- they reject outright violence against women but accept a level of aggression that fits contemporary definitions of domestic violence.

Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, have recently focused on Muslim women's veils as an obstacle to integration in the West. But to me, it is 4:34 that poses the much deeper challenge of integration. How the Muslim world interprets this passage will reveal whether Islam can be compatible with life in the 21st century. As Hadayai Majeed, an African American Muslim who had opened a shelter in Atlanta to serve Muslim women, put it, "If it's okay for me to be a savage in my home, it's okay for me to be a savage in the world."

Not long after I picked up the free Saudi book, Mahmoud Shalash, an imam from Lexington, Ky., stood at the pulpit of my mosque and offered marital advice to the 100 or so men sitting before him. He repeated the three-step plan, with "beat them" as his final suggestion. Upstairs, in the women's balcony, sat a Muslim friend who had recently left her husband, who she said had abused her; her spouse sat among the men in the main hall.

At the sermon's end, I approached Shalash. "This is America," I protested. "How can you tell men to beat their wives?"

"They should beat them lightly," he explained. "It's in the Koran."

He was doing the dance.

Born into a conservative Muslim family that emigrated from Hyderabad, India, to West Virginia, I have seen many female relatives in India cloak themselves head to toe in black burqas and abandon their education and careers for marriage. But the Islam I knew was a gentle one. I was never taught that a man could -- or should -- physically discipline his wife. Abusing anyone, I was told, violated Islamic tenets against zulm , or cruelty. My family adhered to the ninth chapter of the Koran, which says that men and women "are friends and protectors of one another."

However, the kidnapping and killing of my friend and colleague Daniel Pearl in 2002 forced me to confront the link between literalist interpretations of the Koran that sanction violence in the world and those that sanction violence against women. For critics of Islam, 4:34 is the smoking gun that proves that Islam is misogynistic and intrinsically violent. Read literally, it is as troubling as Koranic verses such as At-Tauba ("The Repentance") 9:5, which states that Muslims should "slay the pagans wherever ye find them" or Al-Mâ'idah ("The Table Spread with Food") 5:51, which reads, "Take not the Jews and Christians as friends."

Although Islamic historians agree that the prophet Muhammad never hit a woman, it is also clear that Muslim communities face a domestic violence problem. A 2003 study of 216 Pakistani women found that 97 percent had experienced such abuse; almost half of them reported being victims of nonconsensual sex. Earlier this year, the state-run General Union of Syrian Women released a report showing that one in four married Syrian women is the victim of domestic violence.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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