It’s fairly easy to come up with Islamic condemnations of violence against women. They are clear and numerous: tens of verses of the Qur’an command good treatment of women and define the relationship of husband and wife to be “protecting friends of one another” (30:21), and the Prophet was known to vehemently disapprove of men hitting their wives (“Be kind to women; you have rights over your wives, and they have rights over you” and “Never hit the female servants of Allah”). These responses are brought out by Muslims every time stories like this come in the news: so-called “honor” killings and violence – where women are beaten and killed because some primitive notion of “honor” was violated – are up dramatically in Pakistan over previous years. For those Muslims who brush this off as just a statistic, take a good look at this picture. This is Zahida Parveen, whose ears, nose, and eyes were cut out by her husband.
She doesn’t fit into the statistic above because she’s one of the lucky ones. She lived.
Violence against women is by no means limited to the Muslim world, but as Muslims we are called upon to be better. All the Islamic condemnations of violence against women mean nothing if they lay in dusty, unopened books and are not used against the tribal, patriarchal madness that has continued to infect the Muslim world from the beginning. And even then, condemnations are not enough. The men who commit these crimes and who are escaping with slaps on the wrist must be brought to justice.
The problem of “honor” killing and violence in the Muslim world takes on several forms, but the patterns are similar. In rural areas of the Muslim world, a woman does something to trigger suspicion of sexual infidelity in a family member – husband, father, brother, or son. Sometimes even sisters, mothers, and in-laws get involved. Tribal notions of “honor” demand the woman be killed to restore the family to its rightful state. It doesn’t matter whether there was any actual transgression; suspicion alone is sufficient in almost all of these cases to merit the ultimate punishment. In other cases, women can be attacked for rejecting a marraige proposal, not wearing Islamic attire, or simply fighting with other family members. A hadith from the Prophet Muhammad clearly states that even if a man were to walk in on his wife committing adultery, he cannot take the law into his own hands. But Islam for these people is a cultural adornment that justifies un-Islamic tribal values and not an ethical system that promotes justice and mercy.
The problem of “honor” killings and violence is part of a larger problem in the world of domination, power and hatred of women who, in these instances, are viewed as nothing more than servants to the family or objects to be owned. In America, 34% of women homicide victims over the age of 15 are killed by their current/former boyfriends and husbands – a situation similar to “honor” killing in all but name. But Muslims should not use this fact as an excuse for inaction. Indeed, we have abdicated our responsibility to protect women from this crime for far too long already.
The fact that news of “honor” killings and violence is more common these days can be taken as a sign that, thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change and the problem is beginning to be reported, addressed, and publicized. In Bangladesh, a march led by men protested the growing acid attacks on women there. In Pakistan, the government of Pervez Musharraf has moved to further criminalize “honor” killings (even though police inaction continues to be a problem), and Jordan’s Queen Noor has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and protection from violence. And human rights groups within the Muslim world, including Palestine, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kurdistan and others, are making inroads toward making “honor” killing socially unacceptable.
We have a long way to go to rid ourselves of this plague. Legal systems in the Muslim world, which often mete out light sentences for “honor” killings, need to be strengthened to provide appropriate punishments. Participants in these crimes should not be allowed to hide behind qisas, which allows the relatives of a woman (who often are sympathetic to the murderer) to forgive him or offer blood money to avoid punishment. And Muslim states should offer proper protection to women who are escaping domestic violence or threat of death. And most importantly, we must not allow these people to hide behind Islamic justifications for “honor” killing. Even if “honor” killers don’t fear God, we must at least make them fear us.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.