Outlook: Wife-Beating and the Koran

Asra Q. Nomani
Author, "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam"
Monday, October 23, 2006; 1:00 PM

Asra Q. Nomani , author of " Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam ," was online Monday, Oct. 23, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her Sunday Outlook article on interpretations of the Koran that allow wife-beating as a form of punishment. Nomani refers to 4:34, which by one translation says that for "those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave the alone in the sleeping-places and beat them." Though some groups openly oppose the use of physical punishment, it is still present in the modern Muslim world. Nomani says violence against women is connected to other forms of violence, such as suicide bombings and extremism, and should be rejected in the teachings of Islam.

Clothes Aren't the Issue , ( Post, Oct. 22, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Silver Spring, Md.: Is there anything non-Muslim people can do to prevent or address the domestic violence issue, especially in the Middle East? Maybe NGOs to either work at or donate money to?

Asra Q. Nomani: I wanted to provide some resources of organizations and shelters that are trying to respond to the issue of domestic violence in the Muslim community. I am certain that they would very much appreciate your support. What I hear from them is that our community is ready to build mosques but not shelters.

Here are some of the links:

Atlanta organization:

Progressive scholarship:

Philadelphia organization:

Northern Virginia organization:

Chicago shelter:

Islamic Society of North America list of resources:


Wheaton, Md.: When we hear of wife beatings, suicide bombings and other forms of violence very common within Islamic societies, liberals quickly qualify it by saying,"these actions don't represent mainstream Islam, which is peaceful." Is that really true? I find very few Islamic sources actually condemning these actions.

Asra Q. Nomani: I would like to first like to wish all of you greetings of peace for the Muslim festival of Eid, marking the end of the month of Ramadan. Somehow, that is one thing about which we have found agreement this year, most years the Muslim nations of the world bickering over moon sightings. Sadly, I think that politics within the community and the intimidating force of the extremists has silenced and paralyzed many moderates within mainstream Islam.

Yes, we should have taken to the streets the day after 9/11 to oppose the attack, but today I think many Muslims have recognized that they've got to stand up and be heard opposing violence. Here are some links that will take you to places where these voices are being expressed: a new Dallas organization,; Muslim organizations that have signed onto a fatwa against terrorism:

But it's not enough. I welcome you to go to because there are many of us that realize we've got to be more visible as Muslims for peace.


McLean, Va.: In your article, you argue for a non-literalist interpretation for Sura An-Nisa. How can it now be interpreted to avoid the misogyny that it breeds when it contains, quite specifically, the word 'beat' (in Ali and Pickhall's translation). Is there a way to argue, as Fazlur Rahman does, that the essence of the Qu'ran is what matters and that we must read it in a way that lets us extract universal principles? If so, how could we understand the essence of this Sura?

Asra Q. Nomani: The Koran also talks about slavery and slaves, but the Muslim world didn't continue that practice (except perhaps in the underbelly of society). We have allowed for contextual understanding of many verses of the Koran, including the literal readings that tell us to slay the the "pagans" and never befriend Jews and Christians. If we allow ourselves, we understand that those words were written at a specific political time of tribal and political rivalry. As I wrote in the article, 4:34 was progressive for the 7th century. Let's continue that progressive spirit to the 21st century and say "zero tolerance" to any physical discipline of a woman, gentle or not. And I think that is in fact the spirit of what the scholar Fazlur Rahman encouraged us to do. I believe the essence of the sura was to improve the condition for women in the 7th century to a standard that men of that time could accept. We have now risen to a higher standard.


Washington, D.C.: Hello,

How widespread do you feel such practices are within the U.S. itself? Is the Muslim community so closed that we are unaware of a tragedy occurring right here?

Asra Q. Nomani: At a minimum, the statistics bear out that the incidence of domestic violence in the Muslim community is at least equal to that in the non-Muslim world. As I wrote, some studies have the numbers higher. Muslim society is very closed on this issue with the topic as taboo as domestic violence was in the West in the 1950s.


Southern Germany: Thank you for your helpful column. Why do Saudi/Wahabi interpretations of the Koran have so much influence on Muslim understanding of their faith? Why does power in gender relations seem to be seen mostly in terms of male power OVER women and not as a chance to empower both equally. Thank you.

Asra Q. Nomani: My 15 years as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal allowed me to understand corporate America and its PR machinery. To me, the ideology spun out of Saudi Arabia is little more than the PR machinery of an enterprise I have to come to think of as Wahhabism Inc. It's well financed, and it has a global network of publishing houses, franchises, affiliates and spokesmen on its bankroll.

And I am still trying to figure out how women got so shafted in the power game. If you figure it out, let us all know...


Bethesda, Md.: I doubt you'll print this, but here goes. Anyone spared the standard childhood brainwashing realizes that these ancient tribal religions (Christianity and Judaism included) were founded by men to (among other things) keep women under control. Recent decades have seen adherents "updating" these faiths to wallpaper over this basic fact.

Why keep repainting wood that is rotten at the core? Why not simply embrace modernity? Why does morality have to be based on flawed millennia-old political manifestos?

Asra Q. Nomani: With that kind of challenge, of course, we have to publish your thoughts. What you say is a sentiment echoed in so many of the emails that I receive from women and men disenfranchised by organized religion. This is why I think we must try to transform institutional religion: It's never going to go away. It's better to try to make organized religion a conduit for peace, compassion and love, then surrender it the dark side.


Washington, D.C.: Have you ever been a victim of this yourself? Witnessed such?

I wonder what message 4:34 sends to Muslim youth, if they see this type of thing?

Asra Q. Nomani: I have never been a victim myself, but I have been writing this piece in my mind for the last three years, ever since the night at my mosque when the visiting preacher stood and told the men that they could "beat" their wives as a third option.

I knew my friend was upstairs in the women's section, and she left through the women's designated back door, fuming. I became a volunteer with our local Rape and Domestic Violence Shelter, and I learned about the Power and Control Wheel that is used to show how intimidation and abuse awaits those who challenge power and control in any culture.

My concern is very much about how an imbalanced relationship between women and men gets inherited by the youth, especially boys who think they are meant to be the domineering ones and girls who believe they must be submissive. To me, Islamic civilization will be ruined if we don't squash this dynamic.


Queens, N.Y.: I understand you don't consider clothes the issue, but perhaps you could explain something. Where I live, it certainly is not uncommon to see Muslim women wearing head coverings; but the only women I see fully veiled are living such traditional lives that they appear in public only walking from a car to a store accompanied by husband and children. Why is veiling becoming common in Britain among women living an essentially modern life?

Asra Q. Nomani: Just to clarify, I think clothes in the Muslim world are part of a continuum in the way puritanical and literalist interpretations are expressed in the world, but I think they are the public symbol of greater, deeper questions regarding violence toward women and violence towards others. I believe veiling has become so common because the spinmeisters of puritanical Islamic ideology are gaining ground in even the West. We're in a war of ideas in the Muslim world, and, in the marketplace of ideas, Wahhabism Inc. is increasing its marketshare. Progressive interpretations are trying to put up a good fight, but thinkers, scholars and organizations espousing those ideas aren't well organized or financed. I am hopeful. I believe progress always wins.


Arlington, Va.: I have to agree with Bethesda. I was raised Moslem and to be perfectly honest, see no reason to follow it. I feel I am a good person with strong values, why should I have to follow a bunch of suras supposedly written by a bunch of men?

Asra Q. Nomani: You don't, but we definitely need Muslims with critical minds to engage in the debate and not walk away, if they can, though I understand why you would. It's exhausting. Every other faith has had to go through this process to evolve. Ours must, as well.


Washington, D.C.: Common view is Muslim culture is not promiscuous. I thought the culture was respectful towards women in general. I had a female friend that did an exchange in Egypt. She was not Muslim. She reported that she had never been so sexually harassed and demeaned in her life and would never go back. What's the general comparison of sex in the culture?

Asra Q. Nomani: What your friend experience is something they call "Eve teasing" in my native India. It's an irony that we experience it in Muslim society considering that the Koran doesn't blame Eve for corrupting Adam.

Nonetheless, in the 21st century, it's a reality we face in Muslim society. It makes a woman feel as filthy, dirty and disrespected as the worst cases of sexual harassment we might find in America. It's a myth to think that Muslim society honors women better than societies that aren't Muslim.

Sexuality in Muslim culture today is repressed in such an unhealthy way, I've found, that it leads to a hypersexuality that objectifies women in a way not much different than what Madison Avenue does to women in the West with its images of stilettos and microminiskirts.


Lyon, France: Why is there so much silence on this issue in the West? Is it western fear of Islamic terrorism or is it that most westerners do not care if Muslim women are being abused?

Asra Q. Nomani: Really, to me, the West doesn't need to take responsibility for this issue, as I believe it ultimately doesn't need to take responsibility for extremism in our community. This is a problem that, as a Muslim community, we need to address. Why do I end up writing about it on the pages of the Washington Post? Because like so many of our sacred cows, in our Muslim community, we don't want to touch this issue openly for fear of upsetting the traditionalists and questioning the Koran. We want to do the dance, as more families get hurt in the name of religion. That's wrong.


Dallas, Tex.: Is it in the Koran that a husband can toss aside a newborn to die if it is a girl? I read a book long ago, written by a "member of the Saudi royal family" saying that it was allowed, and that some fathers were disappointed in the sex of their newborns and did do this. The book was written in the mid-1970s. Do you know if this practice persists?

Asra Q. Nomani: What is so ironic is that the Koran banned the common 7th century practice of burying infant girls alive, but yet traditions keep just cruel prejudice alive.


Boston, Mass.: How can you expect the aggressive/submissive male/female dynamic to change when women are not welcomed in Muslim religious places of worship to worship equally with men? If you have separation by the sexes in mosques, it seems no surprise to me that it gets even worse when outside of them.

Asra Q. Nomani: That is exactly why I have fought so hard for us to end gender segregation in mosques. It is akin to gender apartheid. There was only one reason why I could challenge the visiting preacher at my mosque who sanctioned men to "beat" their wives and later another preacher who told us not to be friends with the Jews and Christians: I had rejected the gender segregation at my mosque, and I sat in the main hall, able to see and hear the imam. We must have women in the main halls and leadership positions of mosques if we are going to transform the dysfunctional dynamic of women as second class citizens in Muslim society.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Let me preface this question by stating I believe your intentions are honorable and correct: no person should be beaten for any reason. What I noticed is the reactions of some friends who are Muslims from the Middle East who found your article hypocritical. Let me again preface it by stating that I do not agree, nor are they saying you are hypocritical. You are consistent: people should not be beaten. What they find hypocritical is how Americans in general view them as a violent society because they beat women--which they define and you write is meant more as a light tap to make a point--while American society finds lots of women, children, and sometimes men in hospitals as victims of abuse with broken bones. Have there been any studies that show whether physical violence rates differ much between societies, and in particular, are there much differences amongst societies regarding abusive physical violence as opposed to "light taps"?

Asra Q. Nomani: I have heard from Muslims such as your friends, who raise the issue of domestic violence in the West. The statistics I have seen documenting domestic violence identify abuse just as violent as in the West. As a volunteer in my local shelter, I would never claim to assert the West has figure out how to stop domestic violence. But I do know this:

No longer does the West accept physical rebuke -- gentle or otherwise -- against a man by a woman in the name of religion. That's the position of zero tolerance that I believe we must adopt in the Muslim world.


Fairfax, Va.: I agree with the comment that sexual harassment in the Middle East is horrible. I left Riyadh in 2001 and refuse to return. Both of my children (a boy and a girl, ages 9 and 11) were often the targets of sexual comments and one was assaulted. I was often accosted by the religious police who were offended by my lack of veiling (I am not Moslem). They shouted obscenities at me, poked me with sticks, and once had my husband in handcuffs and were hauling him off to jail until they saw our diplomatic plates. As non-Moslems, we were considered fair game.

Asra Q. Nomani: Trust me, as Muslims, we are not immune.


Herndon, Va.: At the risk of sounding completely stupid: Many of the practices, prohibitions, etc in the Old Testament are totally ignored by 99% of today's Christians. Why are Muslims holding to practices which have no place in the modern world?

Asra Q. Nomani: I believe that there is a historical arc to religion, and we are going through the same sort of critical examination that Christians and Jews went through long ago. You just have a little headstart on us.


St. Mary's City, Md.: Fundamentalists in both Islam and Christianity claim that God intended men to rule over women. How did such a hateful belief arise in these religions, and why is it found so often in fundamentalism?

Asra Q. Nomani: Fundamentalism, I do believe, has the oppression of women and the demonization of others as core tenets. They end up with power because they have the passion. This is why moderate, peaceful thinkers must tap a passion to redefine the way religion is expressed in the world.


Fairfax, Va.: If a Moslem wife is dissatisfied with her husband, can she strike him as well? Can she admonish him or ban him from her bed?

Asra Q. Nomani: That's what anyone with common sense would ask, right? No, women are not given that same "right" -- and, of course, I wouldn't argue for it. Nobody should rebuke, punish or hit.


Maryland: Prior to the 1980's Catholic nuns wore head pieces, long sleeves, floor length dresses (habits). Based on the color and design (always modest) you could determine the nuns' religious order affiliation. You did not see their hair. Only their faces were revealed. In my mind the nuns' attire and reasons for it are similar.

How hate or fear has either transformed us or revealed our true nature.

Asra Q. Nomani: I think it's fear. Fear of women. Fear of women's sexuality. Instead of figuring out healthy ways to coexist, women in all faiths, at one time or another, have had the burden of wearing burlap sacks and shrouds as the solution to other's fears.


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, which Muslim country is the most progressive and whose population is least likely to follow 4:34?

Asra Q. Nomani: Morocco has passed new family laws offering new protections to women. Jordan has taken on the issue of domestic violence. Malaysia has a strong group, Sisters in Islam, that has pushed a zero tolerance policy regarding domestic violence. Most of institutional Islam, however, hasn't yet had the courage to reject any physical discipline of a woman, the most liberal people in institutional Islam arguing that the rebuke must be "gentle."


Thank you: I just wanted to say you've been one of the most articulate, reasoned and compassionate writers on religious matters that I've read in a long time. You give me hope that no religion has to succumb to the repressive extremists, whether it be Islam or Baptist.

Asra Q. Nomani: Thank you very much -- I firmly believe that we are in a universal battle in all of our faiths. And the letters I get from reader tell me that there are many people like you in all of the faiths who are also fed up of hate mongering, violence and conflict.

Our world needs a spiritual leader, perhaps the Dalai Lama, to rise above the fray and inspire all of us to express religion as a force of good. (Of course, the ideologues on all sides will call him 'the anti-Christ,' but the rest of us can try to work, too, for peace.)


Anonymous: You wrote about your friend who was a victim of abuse hearing it was okay to beat women - were you not also upstairs in the women's section?

Asra Q. Nomani: I had rejected the order that women remain in the balcony and amidst great resistance made a space for myself in the main hall. You can read about this effort in an earlier Outlook piece, "Going Where I Know I Belong."

Like the face veil, the second-class status of women in the mosque is a canary in the coalmine. It warns of deeper issues.


Washington, D.C.: Hello, and thank you for hosting this chat.

As an American woman who has to supervise three Muslim men, is there anything I should be aware of, or do differently with them than I do with non-Muslims? It seems tense with them sometimes, though I can't put my finger on the exact cause.

Asra Q. Nomani: I imagine there must be a cultural gap. I would recommend going to the DC area Peaceful Families project that I linked to earlier because some of the issues of men's dynamics at home are ones that could relate to the subtle issues you are feeling in the workplace.


Asra Q. Nomani: Thank you all very much for participating in this discussion. Here is to a more peaceful world...


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