Equal-opportunity domestic violence?

Equal-opportunity domestic violence? November 3, 2008

Like last week’s article on Britain’s apparent condemnation of the entire system of Islamic law, it was the ridiculous headline of this article that got me first. “Al-Azhar backs women’s right to beat husbands“? Hardly. Scholars from al-Azhar University in Cairo have affirmed that a woman who is being abused has a right to fight back in self-defence against her husband’s violence, which is, well, not exactly the same thing as having a right to beat her husband. What on earth was the person who wrote the headline going for? Pure sensationalism?

Of course, the acknowledgment that people who are facing abuse have the right to respond physically in order to protect themselves is important and positive, and it’s good to see Islamic scholars from various countries acknowledging the reality of domestic abuse and the religious right that a woman has to defend herself. I’m really glad to see that the news station covered this.

However, that shouldn’t really be more than a last resort, and should certainly never be a long-term solution. In this sense, the article’s scope seems uncomfortably narrow. It almost implies that the scholars are sanctioning relationships in which both husband and wife are beating each other, because at least that’s equal and the husband’s abuse is being returned in kind. (Or, according to the article’s description of the Turkish scholar, it should be returned “with interest,” which isn’t really a phrase I expected to hear in the context of Islamic law!)

The absence of comments condemning the initial violence means that the onus could be understood as on the person being abused to fight back, which they may not be able to do. I think this is why the headline made me squirm so much; the focus is on a woman’s right to defend herself, but doesn’t explicitly address the initial abuse. The right to self-defence is articulated because everyone should have a right to fight back, but not because domestic violence is wrong in the first place. Sure, we can assume an implicit rejection of violence as well, but it’s almost as if the article is saying, “look, women are equal, because they can beat their husbands back!” Not really a form of equality many women are looking for, I’m guessing.

Also, “Al-Azhar is Sunni Islam’s highest authority”? What, like the Pope? I was pretty sure Islam didn’t have a “highest authority”…

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