Wife-beating in Islam: it’s obviously not okay

I tried to fall asleep last night but couldn’t. I couldn’t and still can’t let go of the battle within me triggered by the latest Muslim community controversy: Muslim men beating their wives as ‘permitted’ in Islamic verse.

Watching this issue unfold is traumatic. In a psychoanalytic sense, trauma is experienced when there is a mismatch between expectation and lived experience that cannot be reconciled. After Clinton lost the election to Trump, for example, many articles were written validating the emotional pain many around the world experienced in seeing their hope in humanity shattered as a bigoted, racist, sexual predator was voted into office.

As our community tries to defend Islam from ‘itself’, trying to defend women who reiterated what they found in regular tafsir [exegesis]books from Islamophobia, many of us Muslim millennial women are at a loss for words, in desperate need for a language to even begin to process what is unfolding.

The first trauma is viewing the video by Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) women through bigoted news reports.

How is something so grotesque suddenly in every Australian news outlet? Where did it even come from, how is this a thing? It’s like a nightmare; something that you keep hidden in a closet has suddenly fallen out in front of guests and nothing you say can save you the embarrassment. Skeletons that you haven’t dealt with are suddenly out in the open and you are forced to confront them now, when you would much rather continue on as they are: out of sight, out of mind.

Of course, if the Muslim community were more aware of these inner compulsions, we would recognise that a media statement is a form of defence and escapism, instead of an actual community response. It is much more convenient for many of us to try and hide the extent of the misinterpretation by representing it as a fringe or radical view.

I say us, because I believe many women in our community are wrought with tension over these verses and manage this tension by ignoring it – until it surfaces in headlines all over the country!

Despite the accusations being levelled against many female leaders in our community, I don’t accept that young women are trying to change the verses of the Quran to suit them and that this is why they find this controversy traumatic. I don’t accept that the reason behind the discomfort in the mainstream interpretation is due to ‘Western’ influences or the appeasement of white sensibilities.

Any of the leaders who signed the Media Statement: Australian Muslim Collaborative Denounces Domestic Violence would tell you it is more to do with the allegation that the Prophet (pbuh) allowed Muslim men to hit their wives for being disobedient to their husbands, and the clash of this idea with the teachings of the Prophet to never hurt, insult, and demean any human, including and specifically not a person’s spouse.

Millennial women are growing up in a world of consent and trigger warnings. We grow up recognising that reality is a social construct and, as critical race theory teaches, we do not accept that having a list of rights provides actual protection or works as a guide to complex human relationships. A list does not guarantee the rights it sets out.

Maybe there was a time when marriage was about clearly defined gender roles that both spouses adhered to and sought to fulfil.

Before the clearly defined rights and responsibilities, women in jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic Arabia] were the property of men, were killed by men and buried alive, were sold by men and were exploited by men.

Islam sought to end this in the Arabian Peninsula and so restricted a male’s authority over females, prescribing limits to their previously unchecked authority.

Quranic verses and ahadith [narrations of statements/actions of the Prophet]came to tell men, who once would have murdered their wives and any man they were accused of cheating on their husbands with (what the term ‘disobedient wife’ actually refers to), to restrain themselves. They were instructed to symbolically ‘hit’ rather than murder their wives and claim provocation.

Interestingly, using provocation as a defence against murder charges is still valid in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. And it’s only in the last few years that law was revoked in other states; it was abolished in Victoria in 2005. Victorian law stopped finding it acceptable that men could claim to be provoked into murderous violence little over 10 years ago. Islamic law stopped finding it acceptable and took away this defence 1400 years ago.

So what about Muslims today, who are being raised in a society where the Islamic goal of ending violence against women and making it illegal is already in place? Whose parents already taught them that a man who hits a woman is a monster? Who were raised to never hit anyone?

When millennial Muslims come to Islam knowing that to control or manipulate or abuse women physically, sexually, emotionally, verbally and financially is completely unacceptable, what do you think happens when they find videos like the HT women’s?

When millennial Muslims already believe and value consent in intimate partner relationships, and recognise that certain discourse enables rape culture, what becomes of verses and ahadith that talk about spousal rights?

I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar, but I want to highlight the importance of historical context when discussing tafsir. The Prophet’s message and Islam’s goal was to elevate the status of women through placing limits on the depth of violence that was hugely prevalent against them 1400 years ago.

Now if the Prophet was speaking to Muslims today who have reached a place where they don’t accept any such violence, would he re-introduce and permit violence for them?

What I am saying is that the interpretation in the video gives men licence to hit women in a society that had already reached a point where such violence is campaigned against and seen as unacceptable, abhorrent.

Men today are raised to never hit a woman, to value consent, to respect a woman’s autonomy, which is in line with the sunnah [Islamic teachings]. The purpose of the verse was to protect women from harm. So why have these HT women interpreted it in such a way that allows men to hit in today’s context?

It is traumatic that today, in a time when women are still subject to immense violence on a daily basis, when women are being murdered by their spouses on a daily basis, when social justice and advocacy groups are exerting enormous efforts to reduce these statistics by creating cultural shifts that subvert the dehumanisation of women, Islamic verses are being explained as permissive of forms of control.

I say this is traumatic because I both am and live with young Muslim women. It’s incredibly dehumanising that the two HT women in the video act out a scenario trivialising the vulnerability of young Muslim women like myself and those I live with.

When a Muslim woman decides to get married today, she is agreeing to forgo her autonomy and enter into a partnership with a (flawed, because who isn’t) man, accepting that this flawed man is entering her life and inspecting every aspect of it. This is a type of vulnerability that comes with identifying as a wife (the same cannot be said in reverse; this doesn’t often apply to the husbands) and one that should be honoured and never exploited.

Today, so many young women are wary of marrying a practicing Muslim man, for fear that this man might have certain beliefs and self-entitlements that non-Muslim or non-practising men won’t because they don’t have any teachings which ‘permit’ them to hit. There is no worse sense of entitlement than an entitlement perceived to be backed up by a sacred, non-negotiable text.

It forces women to face the question: how do you maintain boundaries in a relationship built on such an entitlement? Most women will not enter a marriage expecting that they could be hit at some point if their husbands judge that they have become ‘disobedient’, especially when they believe the word ‘disobedient’ means whatever they want it to mean.

Not to mention the fact that this interpretation of the verse actually stigmatises Muslim men because it creates an assumption that they agree with and will act on this ‘authority’ granted to them.

This is why we have to teach that the verses are meant to be limits for men with jahiliyyah values, rather than indulging in harmful role plays, infantilising scenarios and rigid steps, as these two HT women have done.

The reality is that as long as these verses are taught as permits, women have a lot to fear from so-called ‘righteous’ Muslim men.

Instead of ignoring the extent to which the interpretation of these verses enable abuse and rape culture, let’s start by acknowledging how triggering and traumatic these conversations are to women who seek the tranquility and tender love promised to them by Allah [God] in an Islamic marriage. Let’s not ignore the women who will be subjected to these ‘techniques’. Let’s not ignore the women who are listening to conversations defending men’s ‘right’ to ‘discipline’ them, who feel that their bodies are being violated and abused just in the act of listening to these conversations.

Tasnim Sammak

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