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.
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.
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.