Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thou shall beat your wife

The treatment of women in Islam is a controversial and frequently debated topic. Islamic societies are generally perceived as being oppressive towards women. The notion of Muslim women as oppressed second class citizens is most certainly reinforced in the minds of Westerners by the image of a woman in a burqa (religious dress which covers body and face). Defenders of Islam claim that the subjugation of women has cultural roots, not religious ones. They often use arguments along these lines to exonerate Islam from any wrong doing while laying the blame solely on cultural practices.

In this and upcoming posts, I will present my personal research of this issue based purely on the Quran, which is accepted by all sects of Islam as the untampered word of God, delivered (recited) by his prophet Muhammad some 1500 years ago. In addition, Muslims believe that the Quran is eternal (timeless); that is to say its teachings are applicable to past, present and future generations. Since Arabic is my native language, my research is not based on translated scripture but on the one and only Arabic version of Quran . The Quran devotes a whole chapter to women. In this post, I examine the infamous verse 4:34:

الرجال قوامون على النساء بما فضل الله بعضهم على بعض وبما أنفقوا من أموالهم فالصالحات قانتات حافظات للغيب بما حفظ الله واللاتي تخافون نشوزهن فعظوهن واهجروهن في المضاجع واضربوهن فإن أطعنكم فلا تبغوا عليهن سبيلا إن الله كان عليا كبيرا

which I found the following to be a reasonable translation of:

Men are guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they spend out of their wealth. Righteous women are devoted and to guard what God has guarded even though out of sight. As for those on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them, separate them in beds, beat them. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great.

The verse essentially conveys the following messages:

- First, it states that men are guardians (custodians, protectors, etc.) of women. It further explains that this is due to God's preference (God has favored some more than others) and also because of economic reasons as men are the providers (…they spend out of their wealth).

- Second it advices men on how to act if they fear that their women will engage in nasty conduct. It is not entirely clear what is meant by nasty conduct. Nevertheless, this is not important for the discussion. Let's assume that a woman is about to commit adultery, which is considered to be among the most offensive acts in Arabic societies. Men are first to advice or warn their women. The next course of action if the first proved to be ineffective, is to stop having sex with them. Finally, men are to beat their disobedient wives. Although the Quran is written in classical Arabic, in which many of the used words are not common today, there is no question about use of the verb "to beat" (daraba). daraba is a basic and commonly used verb in classical Arabic, Modern Arabic, as well as all dialects of Arabic.

Obviously, I have many problems with this verse. Most importantly, the fact that this verse gives legal (according to Islamic Sharia law) pretexts for men to beat their wives. Not only that. It gives this right to the man who fears that his wife will commit nasty conduct. Therefore women are to be punished even before they commit the crime! This verse defies any sense of justice. How absurd it is to believe that God instructs violence against women. Yet all Muslims believe that the Quran is the true word of God! In an attempt to understand this obvious contradiction I looked into what Muslim scholars say about this issue. The majority claim that God only gave men the right to beat their wives as a last resort and only in one case (fearing they will commit lewd behavior). I did not find such explanation satisfying since I believe that men and women are truly equal and that violence of any sort should not be an option in a relationship. Other scholars explain that beating in this context is to be gentle and not intended to cause any physical harm. Again it sounds ridiculous in the first place to give men this kind of authority given that it has great potential for being abused.

A clear picture is starting to emerge. This verse could be explained in the context of a law written and created by man (not God). 1500 years ago in the Arabic peninsula (and elsewhere) man had the power. Women were mere objects. Man created laws that do not make sense today and attributed them to God (another of man's creation). As a person who has a sense of what is righteous and just based on human knowledge and experience, this verse presents the most compelling evidence that the Quran is not the word of God.

My problem is not with the Muslims who strictly adhere to the Quran and do beat their wives because God allowed for that. It is with the moderate Muslims who do not beat their wives! This silent (accomplice) majority is causing far more damage by not challenging the authenticity of such verse. They teach their kids that the Quran as a whole is the true word of God, and by that they pass this myth along generation after generation. It is inevitable that within every brain washed generation some will look more closely into the Quran and adhere strictly to it because it is the true word of God. This line of thinking goes far beyond beating of women. It is the reason why second generation Muslims in the West who are raised by moderate nonpracticing Muslim parents are easily lured into extremism. All their parents had to do is plant this one idea (the divinity of the Quran) in them as kids. They grow up with this idea and they eventually find someone more knowledgeable in Islam than their parents (a friend, or an Imam in a Mosque) to teach them about true Islam and thereby convert them into radicals.