By Saima Baig
A few days ago, a video surfaced on the internet. In it, two hijab-clad women in Australia were discussing the verse Surah Nisa in the Quran (4:34).
The translation of the verse in question is as follows:
“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend for [maintenance] from their wealth. So, righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist] forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”
The women were specifically discussing the last part of the verse, which says “strike them”. They very smugly inform us that Islamic jurists had explained – clearly and in detail – what kind of hitting this should be. One of them had brought a “siwak” or “miswak” – a twig of a particular tree – used to clean teeth in the Muslim world. The ladies demonstrated (on each other) how striking someone with this little twig was just a symbolic gesture and was not meant to harm them or hurt them in any way.
They also very kindly explained how other jurists contend that the striking should be done with a “coiled scarf” or handkerchief, neither of which are again going to cause harm. They insisted – while giggling sarcastically – that the world has misunderstood the last part of this verse and there is much ado about nothing.
I find the Stockholm syndrome these, probably educated, ladies are going through extremely frustrating and indicative of the cognitive dissonance that is found in Muslims. They seemed shocked that people would make such a fuss about this issue when it is just meant to be a “symbolic” gesture.
It seemed to escape them that in this verse, Islam has codified violence against women, even if it is meant to be symbolic. It does not occur to them that the whole verse is giving power to one gender over another. They failed to grasp that the whole of the verse is problematic, not just the last part.
Let me go through this verse systematically because the sexism is inescapable.
“Men are in charge of women” because they spend money on them and maintain them. Therefore, good women should be “devoutly obedient” and guard their chastity. This is where the problem starts. If men provide for you, they are in charge ladies.
“Guard your chastity and be devoutly obedient”, which basically means you cannot question your lord and master and must obey every command he gives you. No explanation of what happens if you provide an equal share in the household maintenance.
Now if you are arrogant, your owner (because that is what he is indicated to be in this verse) can advise you, refrain from having sex with you or even strike you. Meaning that he can discipline you because you have been disobedient. Or “arrogant”. I do not know what the definition of arrogant will be in this case. Am I arrogant if I question my husband? Am I arrogant if I go see my friends and he doesn’t want me to? Am I arrogant if I have not made dinner? Am I arrogant if I hold his hand as he tries to strike me with a twig?
Whatever the case, he can advise you. And if you don’t listen to his advice, he can withhold sex. Which to me basically means that it wasn’t advice but an order. And if withholding sex doesn’t work we have the twig solution.
My problem was never that these injunctions are not banal. They may very well be innocuous. My problem – and what these two Stockholm syndrome sufferers (and others like them) fail to grasp – is that they exist, that they are still misogynistic, no matter how you look at them. These ladies do not realise that they are endorsing something that, in this day and age, cannot and must not be endorsed: the exaltation of one individual over another; the dominion of one gender over the other; and the fact that men are superior to women and can humiliate and demean then if they are not obeyed.
Moreover, when Muslims disingenuously tell us that women are equal to men in Islam, while at the same time explaining that any hitting that is to be done is symbolic, they obfuscate the fact that permission is given not only to discipline your wife but suggestions are provided on how to do so. That is not equality by any definition of the word.
First of all, the guy who is going to use this is not necessarily going to go and look for exegesis to understand how it is he should hit his wife. To him striking could be a nice sucker punch to the face. And that is what happens in a lot of cases.
Secondly, even if we are to believe these women and the hitting is to be very mild, it is still sanctioning something that the women in the 21st century cannot and should not accept.
So no ladies. While you can sit there and tell me how this is a symbolic gesture until you are blue in the face, to me the whole of this verse, not just the last part, is not only misogynistic, it sanctions violence. Both of which are a no no.
If you want people to respect your religion, then accept that there are problematic verses and reform them. Do not try to tell us that we are making a big deal. Let me reiterate, it’s not that these commands are not taken as being symbolic, it is that they exist.
Saima Baig is a is an environmental economist and climate change researcher currently based in Karachi. When she is not working on adaptation and mitigation strategies, she writes about various issues including religion, feminism, politics and secularism. She is also a staunch advocate of science education, in particular astrophysics and also blogs about latest news regarding this.