On November 15, 2011, a number of Canadian Muslim leaders and organizations issued a press release condemning domestic violence and honor killings. This press release was backed up by over 50 Muslim organizations, and the Canadian Council of Imams called on imams around Canada to dedicate a khutba on December 9 to issues of domestic violence (you can watch a video of some of the December 9 coverage here). Yet, to some extent, the sudden attention to domestic violence and honor killings seems to respond to the media coverage and ongoing trial of the Shafia case.
Back in October, the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto called for action within Muslim communities to eradicate domestic violence. The call was released at the same time as some Canadian media outlets were starting to discuss honor killings and draw parallels between gendered violence and Islam in the context of Shafia murders. Similarly, the Canadian Council of Muslim women contested the discussions on honor killings related to the Shafia case in a news release. More recently, Imam Sikander Ziad Hashmi, from the Islamic Society of Kingston, told the Globe and Mail that he has been affected by the issues of domestic violence and honor killings that have come up through the trial that the Shafia family is facing. Therefore, it is clear that the coverage of this and similar cases have compelled some Canadian Muslim leaders and organizations to take a stance in the media as a way of tackling the issue of gendered violence and honor killings.
In the past, organizations and initiatives such as the Muslim Family Safety Project, the Islamic Society of North America and the WISE Muslim Women’s Shura Council have explicitly attempted to raise awareness and call for action against gendered and domestic violence and honor killings. Other publicized initiatives such as the Purple Hijab day have been moderately popular in the media and social media outlets, but not necessarily strongly supported by Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Domestic violence remains a big problem among Muslim communities in Canada, but few steps have been taken to actively eradicate domestic violence or the stigma that comes along with it at the institutional level in Muslim communities (i.e. mosques, Islamic Centers or Islamic schools). Other than the most recent press release and the call to dedicate khutbas to this issue, few mosques and Muslim centers in Canada have easily available information on domestic violence in their websites or in their premises.
The Toronto Star points out that this is the first time since 2005 that such a high number of Muslim organizations have come together to counter issues of domestic violence and honor killings. Although perhaps the Star is not considering the efforts of the above organizations, it is true that domestic violence in Muslim communities is a topic that is not often openly discussed in the media and Muslim institutions. Thus, although this press release may seem like a big and important step for community leaders to engage in, it seems to come solely as a response to the media coverage of the Shafia case and as a defense of Islam as a faith system.
Although bringing in together Muslim Canadian organizations (and other non-Muslim institutions) to discuss gendered violence is a valuable and important thing for the community, there are a couple of issues that must be recognized.
First of all, we need to look at who is responding and how they are “representing” the Muslim community in the media. Even when a call to eradicate violence has been made, there are still problems with the way some community leaders go about this. For example, while arguing that Islam does not condone domestic violence, Imam Syed Soharwardy tried to explain the “true” meaning of verse 34 of Surah An-Nisa. He explained,
“Regarding “strike them with tooth brush” [according to his interpretation of the verse], it is an extreme situation. If a married woman establishes intimate relationship with another man, in that extreme case Allah is asking her husband to educate her first.”
There are a number of things that are problematic with this answer, starting by the fact that this response continues to establish a hierarchy between those who “have” to educate and those who “need” to be educated. Furthermore, it perpetrates the idea that “extreme” situations require “extreme” measures. All this, while trying to convince Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam does not call for violence or gender inequality.
Answers like this may not necessarily help counter domestic violence or fight the stigma that comes with it. Moreover, if press releases and public statements are not backed up by a strong anti-violence initiatives, these statements seem empty.
Responding to issues of domestic violence within our communities only when big cases catch the media’s attention is important, but we need more proactive efforts to eradicate domestic violence and honor killings. Gendered violence should be discussed and countered in our mosques and Muslim organizations, as well as in secular institutions. Education and support should be available to women, men, children, and families under any circumstances, with or without the Canadian media’s attention.