‘The Muslim Woman’ and Gender Relations

Chapter 6
‘The Muslim Woman’ and Gender Relations

Multiple Narratives

Kathleen Moore (2010: 117) correctly observes that ‘much of the work of shari’a councils has been narrated through the lives of British Muslim women’, but omits to say that there are multiple narratives, telling different stories. How Muslim women are depicted in books, pamphlets, photographs and television documentaries is worth study in its own right (Moore, Mason and Lewis 2008), but for present purposes two ways of portraying such women (there are more than two) may be observed by placing side by side the covers of publications such as Equal and Free? (2012a) and Bano’s Muslim Women and Shari’ah Councils. They contrast a liberal/secular narrative (often seeped in Orientalism, Bano 2013) of the violently oppressed Muslim woman, with more complex representations, such as those which emerge from studies by Bano or Shariff (2012), or which are expounded by the American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod (2013).

Abu-Lughod herself has described a ‘lurid genre’ of writing about Muslim women, which she characterizes as ‘pornography’ for treating them as ‘eroticized victims’ (2013: 100 ff.) A Sunday Mercury article, for example, reported that rulings under Shari’a included ‘ordering a wife to have sex with her husband “even if she is busy in the kitchen”’.1 Equally striking is what might be called the ‘hagiography of victimhood’, in which women’s testimonies (‘heartbreaking’ stories of ‘suffering’, as they are often described), usually involving domestic violence or oppressive encounters with Muslim scholars, ostensibly make a general statement about women’s experience of Islam. One such was reported in the Daily Mirror (10 November 2013, ‘Forced marriage: Ayesha was repeatedly beaten, raped and then twice almost murdered by her own family’, describing the case of a woman now working with Karma Nirvana:

‘Our married life was hideous’, she says. ‘I was raped for the whole four-and-a-half years. He beat me, controlled and manipulated me. I felt worthless’. When Ayesha dared rebel against her husband, her parents chillingly warned her: ‘Apologise or get divorced and marry an old man. You’re damaged goods now and no one else will want you’. It was the final straw and she even attempted suicide. Luckily she was talked out of it by a friend. She fled and made the decision never to contact her family again. But within days they had tracked her down to a friend’s house. She tells how in November 2000, her uncles tried to kill her by ramming her car off the road. Police were called and her husband and uncles were arrested on charges of attempted murder. The charges were later dropped as police believed the family’s story that they feared she had been kidnapped and were trying to save her.

Similar testimonies are recorded, for instance, in Panorama 2013, Equal and Free? (2012a), and many other places,2 and frequently reiterated in parliamentary debates. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (2011: Ev 6L), for example, heard at length from Jasvinder Sanghera and an anonymous witness, described as a ‘survivor of a forced marriage’. As one member of the Lords said of a previous appearance by Jasvinder Sanghera: ‘It was a significant experience to listen to [her], to hear of the great distress that she had undergone, and to learn from others the extent of the problem’.3

These narratives of Muslim women ‘imperilled’ by ‘dangerous Muslim men’ (Razack 2004), then rescued by English law, are described by Griffith-Jones as naive (2013b, see also Ahmad 2013). Indeed, some women are deterred from participating in studies of Shari’a councils because they are wary of inadvertently ‘contribut[ing] to the stereotype of Muslim women as victims of a patriarchal cultural/religious system’ (Bano 2012a: 61), or fearing they will be portrayed as ‘some kind of alien species’ (woman worker with a Shari’a council, in Bano 2012a: 59). Another (cynical/realistic?) view is that some may find it advantageous to emphasize their victimhood, playing on lawyers and judges ‘who may be moved to pity by the personnel’s own stereotypes of the “oppressed Muslim woman”’ (Shah 2013b: 146). Their skill at ‘cultural navigation’ (Ballard 1994) should not be underestimated.

There is, however, yet another narrative in which the protagonists are ‘plucky individualists with feminist ideals who do not want to remain trapped in their strange and sordid worlds’ (Abu-Lughod 2013: 88). They are ‘survivors’, a widely used alternative to victim: ‘I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor’, said one young woman. Lauded for refusing patriarchy, their agency is equated with resistance (Anitha and Gill 2011). Thus, for the SBS, survivors are, through their experience, and in association with the organization, ‘struggling to define themselves in ways that are meaningful to them as women and as human beings, which often include values of universalism, tolerance and positive affirmation drawn from specific religious traditions’ (Patel and Sen 2011: 54). Through resistance they rise above victimhood. Less heroically perhaps, they may also be seen as doggedly seeking what is best for themselves and their children, in difficult circumstances wherein hard choices have to be made, despite pressure from family expectations (‘that izzat thing’, Bano 2012a: 143), often with little assistance from outsiders. ‘In transcending the ethnocentric construction of Muslim female identity as “victims”’, says Bano, they ‘redefine what it means to be a Muslim woman’ (2012a: 277), and her research, she concludes, ‘reveals the dynamism of these women and in particular their capacity to shift, change and develop in response to new needs and situations’.

Bano recognizes that there is an ambivalent relationship between Muslim women and Shari’a councils, as when councillors seek to reconcile spouses and preserve a marriage at all costs. Indeed, then, and in the community at large, they may find themselves confronting a third narrative of what is, in the view of some women as well as men, the ideal Muslim woman: obedient daughter, wife and mother (Bano 2007, 2012a), or its opposite, someone who does not conform to those ideals, even betrays them. There are, says Bano, among Shari’a councillors ‘common understandings’ about gender relations and the role and position of women which ‘frame the terms of the discussion on which the basis for reconciliation is sought’ (2013: 79).

This may be observed in Haitham al-Haddad’s talk (2009) on ‘Why Marriages Fail’ where he discusses gender relations and sins against marriage. Allah said we should deal with each other with love and justice, he commented, and failure to do this leads to problems. For example, a husband may fail to maintain his wife. ‘It is his duty to provide for his wife, even if she works, if he is allowing her to work’. A woman does not wish to marry a man who ‘looks like a woman, who is soft’:

By nature, women like to see their husbands as shelters, as providers, as protectors. This is the nature of women, this is the nature of females … Even she enjoys him being a superior to her. Don’t listen to those who are trying to make it upside down, to influence women don’t accept the superiority of the husband or of male over you. This is wrong. This is not true. The nature of women they enjoy it.

For their part, however, men welcome softness in a wife, ‘that she is trying to please you’. Wives enjoy receiving gifts from husbands. ‘If a woman feels that her husband is not providing for her, she will see him as equivalent to her’. If husband and wife regard each other as ‘totally equal’ they do not overlook each other’s mistakes. Problems arise when women are working and come home tired and unable to fulfil her husband’s needs. The cause of this is perhaps the husband’s laziness in allowing his wife to work, but the wife by working contributes to this. Consequently, ‘I advise women, don’t work. It is the responsibility of your husband to work. Your responsibility is to enjoy your life at home’. If you must work, make it the minimum; it is the husband’s responsibility to provide. Allah said men are superior to women (he cites the Qur’an), and instructed men to provide for their wives. An (unnamed) Nobel Prize winner said that the wife should play her major role inside the house as a complementary role to the part played by the husband in providing for his wife and children.

Women disobey their husbands, because of feminism and being independent, he added. Some practicing sisters do not realize they should obey their husbands; this is the husband’s right. There is a hadith which says the husband is the one who is leading the wife to paradise:

It is the nature of the man when he comes back home, he is tired, frustrated from work etc., he would like to see his wife ready for him, talking to him, maybe exchanging some soft words with him … but if he sees his wife is not at home or is busy over the telephone or maybe using the Internet … he feels that his wife is not for him. And if he feels that his wife is not for him, then problems start … We are men, we know that our emotional needs are fulfilled when we see our wives next to us.

Some women have a wrong perception of their role, he maintained. In the home the wife has more control than the husband. There is saying that a man is like a dog played with by his wife. But you cannot control your husband by lecturing him. Kisses and tears ‘affect their husbands more than anything’.

The image of gender relations and the ideal Muslim woman-as-wife which informs al-Haddad’s perspective and approach to those who come as petitioners to the ISC, is also apparent in remarks by Dr and Mrs Hasan in Panorama 2013 (below): examine your own role, they are saying; was there anything in your own behaviour or attitude that led your husband to behave in the way he did; did you cook for him, make up, prepare yourself? The cold reception experienced by one Muslim female academic researcher on a visit to a Shari’a council outside London may well have been due to a perception that she was manifestly not fulfilling that role (see also Equal and Free? 2012a: 75).

Victims of Patriarchy and Abuse: Panorama 2013

What pervades opposition to Shari’a is the narrative of the Muslim woman suffering under patriarchal oppression. Equal and Free? (2012a), with its iconic cover of a battered, headscarf-wearing woman, cites numerous examples, notably in a section entitled ‘Women’s Experiences’. The brochure recounts, albeit in insufficient detail for a reader to grasp what was happening, a complicated case of a woman (‘Sami’) who had been told during a visit from ‘a leader of my community’ that she needed permission from her 11-year-old son in Jordan to (re)marry, as he was formally her guardian. Baroness Cox gave a slightly different version in the Lords:

… a Muslim widow wanted to remarry but was told by the Sharia council or court that she must obtain the permission of a male relative. She had no male relative in this country so she had to travel to Jordan to obtain the written permission of a seven year-old boy relative in order to be able to remarry in this country.4

In the Daily Telegraph the child became a ‘seven-year-old boy whom she had never met’,5 and in a speech in the USA (discussed in Chapter 7), and a talk to Central London Humanists in October 2013, it was a grandson. Baroness Cox added: ‘I’ve seen the copy of the letter, the little permission note, in Arabic, in a rather childish hand, of this seven-year-old boy giving his grandmother permission to marry as a widow in the United Kingdom today. What humiliation. But it’s for real’.6

Undoubtedly some Muslim clerics, like al-Haddad, do hold extremely conservative views on gender relations (Qureshi 2014), but opponents are often guilty of citing their remarks out of context. For example, ‘No such thing as rape within marriage’, reported the Daily Mail:

‘There’s no such thing as rape within marriage’, says Muslim leader of sharia law courts in Britain … Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed president [of the ISC], sparked outrage when he said he believed that men who rape their wives should not be prosecuted because ‘sex is part of marriage’. He further claimed … that many married women who made accusations of rape were lying.7

This was based on a reported interview, The Samosa blog,8 in which the Sheikh was asked if non-consensual marital sex was considered rape.

‘No’, he replied. ‘Clearly there cannot be any “rape” within the marriage. Maybe “aggression”, maybe “indecent activity”’. He said it was ‘not Islamic’ to classify non-consensual marital sex as rape and prosecute offenders, adding that ‘to make it exactly as the Western culture demands is as if we are compromising Islamic religion with secular non-Islamic values’.

However, the Sheikh then ‘made his opposition to non-consensual marital sex absolutely clear’:

‘of course it is bad, one should not jump on his wife as and when he desires’ – but he said that it was wrong to prosecute it as rape: ‘It is not an aggression, it is not an assault, it is not some kind of jumping on somebody’s individual right. Because when they got married, the understanding was that sexual intercourse was part of the marriage, so there cannot be anything against sex in marriage. Of course, if it happened without her desire, that is no good, that is not desirable. But that man can be disciplined and can be reprimanded’.

This exchange led Tehmina Kazi of the BMSD to respond:

In a climate where at least 75 per cent of rape crimes are never reported, and where data suggests that nearly one in four women worldwide may experience sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, one would hope that more community leaders would condemn this kind of abuse in the strongest terms possible. This is why the recent remarks … struck a real blow to women’s rights groups and law enforcement professionals alike … Sheikh Sayeed’s comments are reminiscent of a mentality which perceives wives as recipients of their husband’s carnal desires, rather than autonomous sexual agents. This is actually very different from the position in Islamic law, which protects a woman’s right to sexual enjoyment within marriage, to the extent that a woman can divorce her husband on the grounds that he is not satisfying her in the bedroom.9

A key issue is domestic abuse. In his lecture on ‘Why Marriages Fail’, Haitham al-Haddad emphasized the evil of marital breakdown, and added:

A man should not be questioned why he hits his wife. This is something between them. Leave them alone. They can sort out their matters among themselves. Even the father of a daughter who is married to a man should not ask his daughter why you have been beaten or hit by your husband. Why? Because Islam is looking to the bigger picture to keep the relationship between husband and wife together … marriage breakdown is a very bad thing and Shari’a is very keen to keep the matrimonial relationship intact.10

A critical article on the Stand For Peace website11 transcribed the passage (‘A man … husband’) but omitted the explanatory phrase (‘Why? … intact’). Certainly there is considerable ambivalence regarding physical abuse of women, though whether the Qur’an (Sura 4:34) actually authorizes a man to beat his wife is much disputed and subject to conflicting interpretations. Bano records the experience of one woman seeking a divorce:

I told [Shari’a council member] that I left him because he was violent but he started saying things like, ‘Oh how violent was that because in Islam a man is allowed to beat his wife!’ I mean I was so shocked. He said it depends on whether he really hurt me! (2012a: 213).

Domestic abuse was foregrounded in Panorama 2013 which reported on the ISC and Dr Suhaib Hasan’s role as ‘judge’ in the ‘court’. ‘With some women claiming they have suffered domestic violence that has been ignored by these councils, the programme asks whether it is time to tackle a parallel legal system that can run counter to British law’, said an advert.12 The journalist, Jane Corbin, recorded that the ISC maintain that they do not ‘advise women who have been abused to return to their husbands’. However, she added, in the light of evidence provided by women they had interviewed, and in view of government policy regarding domestic violence as a crime which should be reported,13 Panorama wanted to see how the ISC would advise a ‘vulnerable female client’. An undercover reporter was sent to consult Dr Hasan, and the interview filmed surreptitiously:

Her story was that her husband was hitting her. The government says domestic violence is a crime which should be reported to the police. But Dr Hasan told the undercover reporter: ‘The police that is the very, very last resort. If he becomes so aggressive, starts hitting you, punching you of course you have to report it to the police, that is not allowed’. He went on to tell her that reporting the abuse to the police would be a final blow and she would have to leave the house and go to a refuge. He said that was a very ‘bad option’.14

Reporter: Do you think I should tell anyone else? The police maybe? Should I leave home? Because I’m scared to be in the house with him.

Hasan: So he actually beats you?

Reporter: He hits me. He does hit me.

Hasan: Severely or just …

Reporter: What do you mean severely?

Hasan: It leaves some bruises on your body?

Reporter: He has hit me at times and it hurts. Do you think I should go to the police? Do you think I should leave the house? What do you suggest?

Hasan: Police, that is the very, very last resort, if he becomes so aggressive, starts hitting you punching you, of course you have to report it to the police, that is not allowed.

[Jane Corbin’s voiceover] Dr Hasan sits on a dais above the woman, like in a court. He wonders if she has done anything to provoke this treatment.

Hasan: I think you should be courageous enough to ask this question to him. Just tell me why you are upset, huh? Is it because of my cooking? Is it because I see my friends, huh? So can I correct myself?

Jane Corbin: Dr Hasan suggests the woman involve her mother and bring her husband.

Hasan: I gave you my opinion that we want this person to come here. So this is an Islamic council, so come to us. If he does not come, then how can he correct himself. You involve the police if he hits you, but you must understand that this will be the final blow. You will have to leave the house. Where will you go then? A refuge? A refuge is a very bad option. Women are not happy in such places where they have to hide a long time.

Jane Corbin: After half an hour Dr. Hasan’s made clear his view of involving the police. He advises our undercover reporter to have counselling with his wife [Mrs Shakeela Hasan]. She has a TV show where she gives advice to Muslim women … Her reaction to the abuse is to wonder if the woman is at fault.

Mrs Hasan: Did you before he come, did you try to dress up and have a make-up, and get ready or not?

Reporter: Yes I do try to be a good wife in every way to him

Mrs. Hasan: Regularly, you doing it before he comes home? The food is ready, the house is clean and you are ready as well? You did not ignore yourself?

Jane Corbin: Our reporter asks Mrs. Hasan what to do about the physical abuse.

Reporter: I am now really scared. I don’t know whether you think I should tell the police or anybody else.

Mrs Hasan: Not the police, but you have your in-laws? Don’t think about the police because if the police is involved then think – your family life is going to break.

Reporter: I don’t really want to get my mum and dad involved because they are my family, they’re my cousins.

Mrs Hasan: But my child how were you thinking about the police? The family is better.

Concerning domestic violence, The Guardian