The Elephant in the (Prayer) Room

So this morning I’m dragging my way through the morning routine, waiting for the coffee to brew, helping the kids find socks and reminding the two elementary school boys that yes, they do have to wear underwear as they are dressing for school.  I was up way too late last night.  It seems my husband and I have our best discussions late at night, after the kids are in bed and the house has finally settled down to silence.  We talk about everything from the trivial to the profound, and since he’s gotten so involved with the community here he has a lot of stories to tell.

About once a month he leads the prayer on Friday, giving the khutbah at different masjids in the area that don’t have a full-time Imaam.  When he’s at loss for a topic he asks me (won’t that chap the hide of some of the menfolk – you ask your WIFE for a khutbah topic?) and I told him that I think one of the biggest issues in the Ummah today is the oppression of women.  So the last couple of weeks he has hit the topic pretty hard, telling the men that if they have corruption in the home, their entire lives will be corrupted, and by extension the Ummah will be corrupted.  It’s a hard message, and one that rarely gets discussed.

Domestic violence exists in every culture, in every country, and cuts across all religions and socioeconomic groups.  It is not exclusively a Muslim problem, but Muslims have to take the rose-colored glasses off and admit that it exists, and is quite common, in some societies.  Traditionally, it has been kept quiet, swept under the rug, ignored.  Women have been expected to simply put up with it as a part of life.  They have been told it’s their fault.  They have been told they should pray and be patient.  They have been told it’s their husband’s right.  Let me say, in my most rational, uber-logical voice, that this is a load of crap and women need to stand up and yell, in the words of that famous “Network” reporter Howard Beale,

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!

If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you are going to get what you’ve always gotten.  If we are quiet, if we are polite, if we simply assume that being smacked around every so often is part of our lot in life, nothing will change.  So now, I’m telling everyone, men and women, that a change needs to happen.  It needs to happen now.  It needs to happen so that we have some chance of teaching the next generation a better way.  It needs to happen so women won’t be hurt and killed.  It needs to happen because only by curing the ills of the family can we cure the ills of the Ummah.  It needs to happen because I’m damned tired of getting messages from women asking me what they should do when their husband beats them.  Beats them in front of the children.  Beats them as a sort of perverted sexual foreplay.  Beats them for being late with dinner.  Beats them just because.

I know that this is a tough issue.  It is a Gordian knot of complexity, but we have to tease out the threads of its cause and solve it.  Now.

The insanity of domestic violence, the irrationality of it, is what strikes me.  I grew up in a family that was lacking in overt displays of affection, but my dad never raised a hand to my mom, never abused her physically or mentally, so it is totally outside my sphere of understanding as to why people would think it’s okay for a man to hit a woman.  Imagine that a lady is walking down the street and a stranger comes up to her and smashes her in the mouth.  Then he pushes her down and stomps on her stomach.  People would be calling 911 and maybe some courageous guy would tackle the attacker and hold him down.  He’d be arrested, charged with assault, tossed in jail, and hopefully locked away for a good long time.  Why, why the hell, can you tell me, do we consider it a crime when a stranger does it, but when a woman’s most intimate partner, her protector, her life partner does it, it’s just par for the course?  If she shows up with a black eye and and a swollen lip, people turn away at her shame.  I’m not talking about the justice system here.  Things have gotten a lot better for victims of domestic abuse and the system, while certainly not perfect, is changing for the better.  No, I’m talking about the situation in our community, in our mosques, in our sisters’ teas and our brothers’ halaqahs.  The silence is deafening and our silence is our sin.

My husband, may Allah bless his efforts, is trying to make inroads with the men, so I’ll start with the ladies.  First and foremost, let me tell you that there is nothing in Islam that gives a man the right to beat up his wife.  Yeah, yeah, there is a verse in the Qur’an that gives a man permission to strike his wife in a certain way, in certain very limited circumstances, but as a practical matter, it is never allowed because the steps that men are supposed to take before this symbolic strike becomes necessary rarely ever take place.  I know it can be confusing but let me try to explain:

Okay, first of all, husbands and wives should always deal with one another with kindness and compassion.  They should both be striving for the same thing, which is Jannah, and thus they are a team and should never devolve into any type of master / servant relationship.  They are equal in the sight of Allah.  That being said, the verse does exist.  Here’s what it means:

Say a man, Bob, has a wife, Sarah.  Sarah and Bob are a typical Muslim couple (what, you don’t think Bob can be a Muslim name?), moderately religious.  Now, imagine one day that Sarah, who works as a data entry clerk in a travel agency, comes home and says the “girls” are going to have a night out on the town next week and she wants to go with them.  She’s the only Muslim in her office and she doesn’t want to miss out on a chance to bond with the ladies.  Bob reasonably points out that it’s not appropriate for Sarah to go out with a bunch of women who will be dressed in skimpy clothing and visiting bars and clubs.  Sarah frets; she really wants to go out with the girls.  “I won’t drink, I’ll just go to be with them and have fun.”.  Bob says no, and he thinks that is that. Sarah, usually pretty rational, nevertheless sticks in her toes and says “I’m going!”.  Now, Bob does not want her to do something that is clearly forbidden in Islam, so does he smack her to get his point across?  No.  He is not allowed to touch her.  What can he do?  He can talk to her.

Bob goes online and finds some fatwas at her favorite Islamic website and shows them to her.  He tells her reasonably that there is no way that it is allowed for her to go to bars and hang out with non-Muslim women in “loose” circumstances where there will be men coming around to flirt with them.  She reads, she thinks about it, and still she says she wants to go.  Can he hit her now?  No.  He has no right to hit her.  Bob gets on the phone and calls Sarah’s mom and asks if she can talk some sense into her daughter, and he also calls the Imaam at their mosque and asks him for advice.  Sarah is resistant to all advice, stubbornly insisting she just wants a bit of fun and why can’t she do what she wants.  Bob offers to take her to dinner; he offers to reserve a bed and breakfast for them.  No.  She says, no.  Can he smack her now?  Nope, can’t touch her.

He tells her sadly that he cannot accept her behavior and that he is withdrawing from her physically.  He takes some pillows and blankets and makes up the sofabed in the guest room, sleeping separately from her.  No kind touches, no hugs, no physical intimacy.  Still, Sarah cannot see what she is doing is wrong.  Bob is frustrated.  He has tried everything.  He’s talked to her, showed her scripture, brought in family for counseling, sought advice from the Imaam, and withdrawn.  Yet Sarah is still determined to go out to the bar with her friends.  What options does he have left?  Well, he has one more tool.  He can strike her.  Brutal! you say.  That animal!  you object.  But he is limited even now.  He is not allowed to strike her with anything larger than a toothbrush, and the hit must not be hard to leave a mark, and cannot be on the face.  It is not a “Damn you woman, don’t defy me!” hit.  It is a “This is the last step before I have to take the painful decision to divorce you” tap that will, God willing, wake her up to her seriously bad behavior.  And if it is felt this won’t do any good, then he’s not even allowed to resort to that.

So, you see, that’s what this hitting is all about.  It is a light, symbolic, last resort tap to remind a woman who is doing something seriously wrong that she is endangering her marriage.  It’s sad that anyone would need to resort to it, but if it wakes her up and keeps the marriage from being broken, it is the lesser of two evils.  It should also be said that Muslim men should always strive to live according to the example of  the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and if they do that, domestic violence would disappear because he never hit a woman. Chew on that.

In the real world, men who hit are not hitting because their wives want to run off with the pool boy or dance naked in a bar.  They are hitting because they can, and this abuse is never, ever countenanced in Islam.  They hit because they grew up in a house where violence was common.  They hit because it’s typical in their home or their village.  They hit because that is their “normal”.  We have to create a new normal, because it simply has to stop.  How?  That’s for the next post.  My brain hurts and this topic makes me sad so I’m going to take a break and play with my kids for a bit.  Finish my coffee, round up my library books, figure out what to make for lunch.  Think about how thankful I am to have a good husband who would never raise his hand against a woman.  Yeah, gonna do that for a while.  InshaAllah I’ll be back in a bit…


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