I lived for several decades in Saudi Arabia, but I was still stupefied yesterday watching a video of an Egyptian TV panel discussion that condoned wife beating.
I felt worse when I realized that many fundamentalist Christian men still hold very similar views in my own, supposedly advanced country, the United States.
The casual defense of such violence against women is embedded in ancient books of religious scripture — the Bible here in America (which also condones such beating), and the Qur’an in all Muslim-majority countries worldwide, and other faiths.
The irrational craziness in the video clip began immediately in a disturbing conversation between the male host, another male panelist and three woman, one covered head-to-toe in a dense black abaya (a shapeless, traditional cover-all for Muslim women purposely designed to conceal body and face in public). In the clip, the veiled woman’s eyes were her only feature showing.
Besides the traditionally cloaked woman, the rest of the panelists were wearing Western business attire — jackets and neckties for the men, dresses for the women, whose hair was uncovered.
Talking as though what they were saying was morally defensible, the disquieting chat (with English captions) went this way:
Host: Is it normal for a man to beat his wife?
Woman: If you look it from the standpoint of the shari’a [Muslim law], it does not say that he should beat her. It says there are several steps he must take before he can beat her.
Host: What does the shari’a say?
Woman: [When, for example, wives leave] the conjugal bed … first, [the shari’a] says, admonish them.
Host: That’s right.
Woman: If my wife behaves in a manner that does not please me, I should tell her: “That’s wrong, that upsets me, don’t do it.” If it works, then that’s the end of it. But what if it doesn’t? The Shari’a says [to the husband if his wife displeases him]: “Leave the conjugal bed.” You should leave her bed so that she knows she has upset you. You should leave her room and go to sleep in another room. What if this doesn’t work either? In this case, the shari’a says, “Beat them,” but only after the previous two steps.
Host: Beat them with what?
Woman: I’m getting there. The shari’a says “beat them,” but there is no religious text or prophetic hadith (the utterances of the prophet Muhammad) that specifies how it should be done. However, the Islamic scholars say the beating must not be hard. He should not hit her face.
Host: They said he should use a siwak (a switch made from a tree branch).
Woman: Hold on, I’m reviewing the opinions of many scholars, not just one. Some of them said the beating should not be hard, and the face should not be hit. The purpose of the beating is not to inflict pain, but to humiliate the wife.
Host: To draw attention to, not humiliate.
Male panelist (heatedly): You must admit that beating [my wife] is my Qur’anic right!
Female panelist: But misusing this right …
2nd female panelist (unveiled): You will never get me to admit that beating is …
Panelist (more heatedly): Do you want to change the Qur’an?
2nd female panelist: No, I do not …
Male panelist: Doesn’t it give me the right to beat [my wife]? Are you willing to destroy a home just because you were beaten? You share the responsibility; you drove him to beat you.
3rd female panelist (unveiled): You don’t realize the psychological effects of this beating …
Male panelist: But why were you beaten in the first place? What did you do to make him beat you? Why did you make him assert his right?
You can see the problem with trying to defend a cruel, unjust practice just because it is written in an ancient book, not because it makes any humanist moral sense in the contemporary world.
This undercurrent of male privilege exists in many countries today, where even if not voiced as explicitly as in this video, strongly assumes that male privilege and prerogatives trump female ones. The #MeToo movement is just the latest example, as men push back aggressively and fearfully. Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Supreme Court nomination hearings are a case in point, as men instintively circled their wagons — choosing to believe him, not her — against the respected jurist’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed he tried to rape her when they were in college years before.
And this deep assumption of male dominance is biblical. It’s also prevalent in the history of Western Civilization. For example, the phrase “rule of thumb” apparently derives from a 1782 ruling in English law holding that a man is allowed to beat his wife only if the stick he uses is “no thicker than a thumb.” (thanks to Reddit commenter Prajnadhyana, “Gnostic Atheist,” who submitted brought my attention to this relevant phrase.)
So, it’s not just in Egypt that women still have to put up with this nonsense.
At least in America, men don’t have a legal right to beat their wives anymore. But psychological subjugation and humiliation and intimidation are still fine, if she’ll let you get away with it.
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FYI, my newly published memoir — 3,001 Arabian Days — is now available in paperback and digital formats on Amazon, here. It’s the story of growing up in an American oil camp in the Saudi Arabian desert from 1953-1962.
“Author Snedeker’s wit and insights illuminate the book’s easy narrative. His journalistic style faithfully recreates the people, places and events, and keeps the story crisp and moving from one chapter to the next. More than a coming of age story, 3,001 Arabian Days is a moving tribute to the intricacies of family, a celebration of Saudi Arabian culture, and a glimpse into a time gone by, but whose shadowy specter you can still almost reach out and touch.” — Mark Kennedy