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Sat 18 November 2017


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J. Samia Mair looks at abuse in marriage and calls for a united response

"In my experience, physical abuse is the easiest to get over," Nabila states calmly. "It was the spiritual abuse that I found the most difficult to deal with."

"In my experience, physical abuse is the easiest to get over," Nabila states calmly. "It was the spiritual abuse that I found the most difficult to deal with."

"Spiritual abuse?" I ask. "What I mean is that some Muslim men abuse the deen to their benefit as husbands… especially when married to a revert." Nabila is a 30-something, American convert with four children, who has been married and divorced three times. She is intelligent and strong and if you met her, you would be surprised that she experienced spiritual and other abuse from all three of her ex-husbands. "For example," Nabila continues, "they would say if you don't please your husband the angels will curse you all night and use that translation of the hadith to get whatever they want- tea, coffee, dinner, sex, etc..." Nabila painfully recalls one ex-husband who would call her into the bedroom as soon as the first guest arrived for dinner and demand that they engage in intimate relations at that moment. Or, he would come home filthy from work and demand intimate relations before he showered.

When she tried to reason with him and discuss the Islamic perspective on an issue, the typical response was "You weren't raised a Muslim; you don't know. I don't need to read the Qur'an. I know what it says."

Though her ex-husbands demanded that she fulfill her wifely duties according to their interpretation of Islam, they refused to fulfill their obligations. If she remarked that the Prophet (S) acted differently towards his wives, a common retort was "I'm not the Prophet."

Nabila sought the advice of several different imams over the years, but they offered little help. "Sister, be patient. Ask Allah (SWT) to help your husband."

"How much patience was I supposed to have?" Nabila asks rhetorically. "It is especially difficult when children are involved and they see the abuse and the misuse of the deen. Divorce is allowed but when do you pull the plug?"

That is the difficult question women of abuse face. Nabila and many other women in her position desperately want to fulfill their marital obligations and remain married, but often find themselves in an intolerable situation, in which their husbands do not want to change (or do not think they should) and their imams offer no practical support whatsoever.

Nabila does not believe that her situation is uncommon. "Often when I speak to newly married converts, the same questions arise: 'Is it true that my husband can beat me? Is the man better than the woman?' It makes you wonder," she pauses, "if that is the first thing they are giving their wives as information."

Spiritual abuse does not occur in a vacuum and is often associated with other types of behaviour including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. It could be considered part of psychological abuse, which involves several different tactics such as intimidation, constant belittling and humiliation, and controlling behaviour such as isolating a person from family and friends. Like Nabila, studies show that many women find the psychological abuse even more difficult to bear than the physical violence.

Of course, spousal abuse does not only affect converts nor is it confined to Muslims. It occurs throughout the world irrespective of religion, socioeconomic status, culture, and gender. The brunt of the burden, however, is borne by women. Psychological abuse often escalates into physical violence, which can sometimes be lethal. Recent research in England and Whales found that over 24% of people aged 16 to 59 were victims of partner abuse (defined as "non-sexual emotional or financial abuse, threats or physical force by a current or former partner"); of those, 54% suffered injury or emotional trauma from the abuse and 59% suffered abuse on more than one occasion. In the United States, more than 4 million women each year suffer physical harm at the hands of their husband, boyfriend, or other intimate partner.

A combination of factors-individual, relationship, community, and societal—put women at risk of abuse although the exact interplay of these factors has not been adequately researched according to the World Health Organisation 2002 World report on violence and health. Nevertheless, some research suggests that how a community responds to spousal abuse (e.g., moral pressure from neighbours to intervene when a woman is beaten, legal sanctions, access to shelters, family support) may affect the level of abuse in that community.

Islam categorically condemns abuse against women. Our beloved Prophet (S) treated his wives very kindly, never hit them, and had the utmost respect for women: "The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I am the best among you to my family" (Tirmidhi). The verse in the Qur'an which has been mistranslated and misinterpreted by some to permit spousal abuse (4:34) actually was meant to prevent it. The verse only applies after a severe and repeated breech of the marital contract and provides an orderly response meant to defuse the situation. The husband first must speak to his wife about the problem and then separate from her intimately. This gives the couple time to calm down and miss each other. If the problem still persists, he may give her a symbolic tap-not the beating some have used to justify violence. No harm may come from this tap, and some scholars have stated in a society where men do not know the limits of this verse, even this symbolic gesture is prohibited.

Nabila never doubted Islam, stating that she was strong enough in her faith, but she "doubted the community." Her words made my heart sink. If all else fails, an abused woman can divorce her husband, but a Muslim cannot "divorce" the Ummah. Recently, a friend told me that her sister-in-law was being beaten by her husband. When the sister-in-law asked the imam for advice, he asked her, "What are you doing to upset your husband?" The masjid, of all places, should be a place where women (and other victims of abuse) can find protection and where the abuser can get help. Spiritual leaders in the community must be proactive to educate the community that spousal abuse is not permissible and will not be tolerated. The brothers in the community should also step forward to create an environment where abuse against women is totally unacceptable.

The imam's response above certainly does not represent the opinion of all imams as many imams and Islamic scholars categorically denounce this behaviour. In the United States and elsewhere, there are national, regional, and local Muslim and non-Muslim organisations where Muslim women can seek help from abuse. Still, much more needs to be done to address this problem which continues to affect millions of women throughout the world. Our sisters also need to understand that Islam does not condone spousal abuse and know where to find help in the community that will not put them at greater risk of abuse. The Prophet (S) told us that "Believers are like a single person; if his eye is in pain his whole body pains, and if his head is in pain his whole body pains" (Muslim).

Pre-Islamic Arabia was not a particularly good place to be a woman. Among other things, women were considered the property of their husbands and could be inherited; men could marry as many women as they chose; women had no rights of inheritance; and female infanticide was common. Islam prohibited these practices, elevating the status of women and protecting the vulnerable - principles that must never be forgotten.

J. Samia Mair practised law for nearly a decade, including prosecution of criminal cases involving violence against women and children. She also was a faculty member of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and conducted research to prevent violence and improve the health of vulnerable populations such as prisoners, women, and children. Side-bar: "The most perfect of believers in the matter of faith is he whose behaviour is best; and the best of you are those who behave best towards their wives" (Tirmidhi).

PULL QUOTE: Research suggests that how a community responds to spousal abuse may affect the level of abuse in that community.

This article was first published in SISTERS, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women. Visit the SISTERS website at to read more articles - and download a complimentary issue!


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