How to Honor Islam by Honoring Women

In response to the landmark Punjab Women’s Protection Act, which laid out mechanisms for the prevention and prosecution of domestic abuse, the Council of Islamic Ideology unveiled their version of a Women’s Protection Bill last week. That their recommendations make a mockery of the concept of women’s protection should not surprise anyone; the CII is determined to codify a patriarchal system that usurps the constitutional rights of Pakistani women to safety and security. It also seeks to undo the years of progress made by Pakistani women in their struggle to become emancipated, educated, and fully-participating citizens of the country.

Amongst its numerous clauses was the recommendation that a husband should be legally allowed to “lightly beat” his wife in order to discipline her. Other recommendations included enforcing the wearing of hijab by beating, banning co-education and the mixing of men and women in schools, hospitals, and offices, and disallowing women from combat. In a day and age when Pakistan ranks as the third-lowest country in 2016’s Global Gender Gap report, and when violence against women is endemic, these recommendations are illogical at best and irresponsible at worst. 

While some Pakistanis understand the CII’s recommendations for the misogyny that it is, most men and even some women are content to accept their words as divine law. Where is the spirit of equality and compassion that encourages us to question whether the Quran truly sanctions violence against women?

If only we would dig a little deeper, we would learn that alternative interpretations of the Quran with regards to women and corporal punishment exist in the wide body of Islamic scholarship. The most well-known Quranic verse on the issue of marital relations, Surah Nisa 4:34, has classically been translated as:  “If you fear disobedience from your wives, first admonish them, then forsake their beds, and then strike them.” This is widely interpreted as divine sanction to physically chastise or hit a wife in order to discipline her.

Many female Islamic scholars (and some enlightened male ones) have pointed out that the word adribuhunna in the verse (from the Arabic root word daraba), has twelve different meanings. Only one of those meanings means “to strike” or “to beat”. Another meaning is “to separate.” What if the verse were interpreted as: “If you fear disobedience from your wives, first admonish them, then forsake their beds, and then separate from them”?

This interpretation correlates much better with the example and words of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, whose last sermon enjoins Muslim men to treat their wives with kindness as they are “partners and committed helpers” to the men. Tellingly, the Prophet never hit any of his wives, nor any other woman in his lifetime.

Ultimately, though, the problem doesn’t lie in the words of the Quran or the Prophet’s words and actions, which are clear and unquestionable. Our own arrogant mindsets, shaped by our culture and society, convince us that a man has the right to hit his wife. Whether it’s in the name of Islam, or to keep her well-behaved, or to promote order in society, or the man’s authority in the household, men gladly accept the privilege that allows them to control a woman by physical means, which can and does result in grievous harm. It is our resistance to Islam’s compassion, kindness, justice, and humanity that makes us tolerate and even perpetuate such a contradiction in our midst.

There is much in Islam’s rich history that points to the emancipation and empowerment of women. Bilquis, Queen of Sheba, is seen as one of the best examples of how to govern a nation, with her intelligence, fairness, and enlightenment. The Quran encouraged women to participate in the Mubahalah (Surah Imran 3:61), a public debate between Muslims and Christians of the tribe of Najran. Women freely chose to become Muslim, gave their allegiance to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in mubaiyat and emigrated to Madina with the Prophet and his Companions (peace be upon them). Women like Summayya Umm’Ammar even gave up their lives in defiance of the oppressors of the early Muslims in a clear example of women’s martyrdom and political protest. These were honors bestowed upon women in the early days of Islam, and should not be taken lightly or dismissed as anomalies.

It is good to observe that the Government of Punjab has not been swayed by the CII’s arguments; they are starting to implement the Punjab Protection of Women Act by establishing a Violence Against Women Center Authority. In this way they are paying attention to the injunctions of Islam which order Muslims to protect women, girls, and children against mistreatment and harm.

There can be no nobler way of honoring the Prophet’s instructions than to honor women.

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