The Art of Airing Dirty Laundry: A Deeper Look at the Muslims for White Ribbon Campaign

Having survived a father who used religion to justify his violence, I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with faith. The process of grappling has taught me the value of difficult, uncomfortable questions and conversations, through which I’ve learned about myself, my ummah, and Islam. But Muslims in the West rarely have the luxury of having difficult conversations that are privy exclusively to the ears of our own communities. And so, difficult discussions, like the ones about domestic violence within Muslim families living in the West, become synonymous with “airing dirty laundry,” a phrase that refers to dealing with personal and often damaging problems in public. We, as Muslims, often resist airing dirty laundry, fearing Islamophobia. These fears aren’t baseless. In this post, I explore the issues associated with airing dirty laundry in the context of domestic violence and suggest that complex, critical conversations are necessary to maintain relevance to our ummah despite the risks.

In 2007, when 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez was killed by her father and brother in Mississauga, Ontario, the media frenzy focused on the status of women in Islam. Google Aqsa Parvez’s name and the first site to pop up is a Wikipedia link entitled “Honor killing of Aqsa Parvez.” Two years later, the Shafia sisters, Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti, along with their father’s first wife, were murdered by their father, brother, and mother. Their bodies were found in a car dumped at the bottom of a canal in Kingston, Ontario. The mainstream media analysis of these murders was virtually identical to when Aqsa Parvez was killed. In the same way, the Shafia murders were instantly discussed as “honor killings,” attributing sole culpability to the presumed monolith that is Islam and putting expectations on Muslims to “grapple” with the guilty verdicts.

Clearly, the mainstream media discourse would like me to believe that Islam is inherently sexist. Never mind that the prevalence of domestic violence among Muslim communities is roughly comparable to those in non-Muslim communities. But domestic violence in Muslim communities can look different and is, at times, heavily shaped by poverty, racism, culture, and stresses related to immigration, in addition to the structural patriarchy and misogyny that also exists in the West. The differences warrant that we, within the ummah, have conversations about domestic violence in terms that are relevant to our own communities. Airing that dirty laundry, however, can be a risky proposition, as evident from the backlash experienced by Muslims in reaction to the deaths of Aqsa Parvez and the Shafia family.

The Muslims for White Ribbon Campaign attempts a public discourse about domestic violence. The initiative coincides with the broader White Ribbon Campaign that occurs annually in November and is a grassroots effort by men working towards ending violence against women. The website includes a list of articles, features a khutba campaign, and includes a long list of signatories largely made of Imams from Ontario.

Banner for the Muslims for White Ribbon Campaign. Via muslimsforwhiteribbon.com.

Clicking through the site, I can’t help but feel it’s figuratively vacant. I can appreciate the immense challenge creating a campaign about domestic violence that is relevant to a dynamic, culturally diverse community of Muslims. Instead, what exists is a superficial acknowledgement that domestic violence is bad, with no real, meaningful discourse about its origins or plans to address it. The site includes, for example, the white ribbon pledge to “never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls” and objectives that include breaking the silence on violence, promoting healthy relationships, and creating partnerships among Mosques, women’s organizations, and social agencies. While laudable, in the absence of an operational, sustainable set of strategies, the pledge and objectives remain largely theoretical. My mother is deeply engaged within the Muslim community in Toronto and wasn’t aware of the campaign. So it leaves me to ask, who is the Muslims for White Ribbon Campaign really for? Is this is genuine attempt at engaging the Muslim ummah on domestic violence or an apologetic response to incidents of domestic violence that are xenophobically labelled as “honor killings”? Eren posed a similar set of questions when Canadian Muslim leaders and organizations responded to media coverage of the Shafia case in November 2011.

As a survivor of domestic violence, I can tell you my father used faith to justify his abuse. Yes, without a doubt, he misapplied verses from the Quran and hadiths from the Prophet. But the 17 year-old me didn’t realize that, and in the absence of an appropriate, religiously and culturally relevant media discourse on domestic violence, this fractured my relationship with God. The Muslims for White Ribbon Campaign has the potential for facilitating those hard conversations. Instead, a resource from the campaign page provides a simple set of khutba notes, including a set of Quranic verses, hadiths, and sunnah that address the status of women in Islam. It reminds me of bad poetry slam; while some Imam duels out all the verses and hadiths that support the equality of women in one corner, an Islamophobe at the other end thumps out all quotes that try to prove otherwise.

We have to genuinely acknowledge the origins of domestic violence in our communities and risk airing the dirty laundry to maintain relevance to our ummah. We have to, for example, somehow explicitly reconcile that people use Verse 4:34 from the Quran, often referred to as the “beating verse,” to justify domestic violence. In her brilliant article, “In the Book We have Left out Nothing’: The Ethical Problem of the Existence of Verse 4:34 in the Qur’an,” Professor Laury Silvers does just that; she theologically and ethically unpacks the verse to challenge its traditional interpretations and commentary. In other words, rather than cherry picking parts of Islamic scripture that serve our purposes, we must also deliberately deconstruct difficult, uncomfortable texts as a means of meaningfully addressing domestic violence within the ummah.

When we, as Muslims, try to have complex, critical conversations about issues like domestic violence, we also worry about being misinterpreted, misunderstood, and creating Islamophobic backlashes within the Western media. But by being seized with fear and in failing to air the dirty laundry, initiatives like the Muslims for White Ribbon Campaign are, at best, ineffective. At worst, we also risk losing opportunities for preventing domestic violence within our communities and cultivating deeper, richer understandings of our own faith. Instead of being reactive to tragic incidents like the murders of Aqsa Parvez and the Shafia family, we should harness our own narrative. Airing dirty laundry through critical discourse in the media, in other words, can be the key to claiming and maintaining our agency as Muslims in the West.

  • sgide

    First, domestic violence is against the law in Canada and most other countries in the west. Secular law trumps religious law every time, no exceptions. The “beating verse” in the Q’uran is therefor irrelevant. This is the beginning and the end of the discussion. All Muslims who live in the west or who want to live in the west must understand that our secular laws are non-negotiable. Muslim men who beat their wives and/or children will be charged with a crime, will be prosecuted and will be punished.

    I have no patience for ‘discussions” about this topic, since it is crystal clear that beating another human being is a crime in the west. Perhaps this verse should be struck or red-lined along with a few others from the Q’uran, if only for Muslims living in the west.

    • Rochelle Terman

      sgide, no offense but what kind of whacky crack are you smoking? Since when are secular laws non-negotiable? Isn’t this was the democratic process is for — to negotiate secular laws?

      It is also most certainly NOT “crystal clear” that beating another human being is a crime in the West. TODAY there are laws on the books in many places in the United States in which a man who is charged with beating his wife can escape prison if it was a “crime of passion.” Beating one’s children is also de jure and de facto let off in the name of “parental rights to discipline kids.”

      So is murder for “defending one’s property” (http://gawker.com/texas-says-its-ok-to-shoot-an-escort-if-she-wont-have-511636423) And let’s not even mention is the overwhleming history of legally sanctioned violence directed towards African Americans in this country. One has to look no further than Trevon Martin to see how consistently these “secular laws” support violence.

      “Secular” laws have historically supported such lovely institutions as slavery, women-as-property-of-her-husband, the Holocaust and several other genocides, militarization, environmental degradation and many other disasters. The worst wars in history by any measure have been “secular” wars — the World Wars come to mind. Secular laws “trump” religious ones indeed.

      In short, sgide, I think you are a troll because no sincere person can be this blind. But even your trolling kind of sucks.

      • Tec15

        I don’t usually, agree with you but this time you have perfectly put this sanctimonious troll in it’s place. Bravo!

        • Rochelle Terman

          Aw shucks, Tec

      • Jekyll

        I think this is the first time I will agree with you.

    • kcthomas

      When an act we call crime is sanctioned by Scripture, there is a problem. Why the adherents of this teaching do not think and come to the conclusion that beating wife or children is not a good act.
      One thing, it is also not right to take away all parental rights. We know strict rules are made because there were brutal punishments by some parents. Ultimately what is required is Patience and Love. Rules and punishment alone will not achieve hundred percent result

  • http://muslimahwalkingaround.wordpress.com/ Eren Cervantes-Altamirano

    I think it is very simplistic to put the issue as Sgide does. Yes, domestic violence is illegal in Canada, yet largely common in non-immigrant and immigrant communities. What Amina addresses in here is the community efforts (or lack thereof) to change the situation of women and children in violent partnerships. However, that does not talk about the Canadian system and what happens afterwards. It has been largely reported that Canadian police and the legal system are largely biased not only against Muslims and “their honor killings” but also Aboriginal communities when it comes to domestic violence. In addition, in the past they have failed to identify dangerous settings such as in the Shafia case, where they did little to address previous reports of violence at home. Thus, it comes to be that relying on the fact that domestic violence is illegal in Canada does nothing to prevent it. We need community efforts to stop it. If the law was enough and this was uniquely a “Muslim problem” Western countries and their large non-immigrant communities would not be among the highest cases of feminicide and gendered violence. Let’s not pretend domestic violence is the problem of the “other.”

  • Rochelle Terman

    I also want to thank Amina for writing this piece. It is not easy to share one’s personal experience with DV and I think you’re incredibly brave for writing about your experiences. Ironically, I think the the Islamophobic claim that Muslims are particularly patriarchal may constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy. What this discourse does is discourage any honest discussion of patriarchy in Muslim contexts, as people come to realize that any publicizing of Muslim violence will result in more Islamophobia. To the extent that Muslim communities experience patriarchy just like every other community, the silence this predicament engenders actually makes sexism stronger, which in turn reinforces Islamophobic stereotypes of Islam. A vicious cycle is repeated. But contributions like yours help to break that cycle, so thank you!

  • Fazel Subian

    Misunderstood the purpose of a religion.
    Understand your re-legion.
    ‘TRUE ESSENCE OF RELIGIONS’ To unite all
    http://www.fazelsubian.com


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