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Islamic World Remains Divided Over Violence Against Women

Violence against women has long been a controversial subject in the Arab and Islamic world. Some Islamic experts favor a husband's right to physically chastise his wife. But recent fatwahs, including from top scholars in Egypt, favor a woman's right to self-defense in cases of conjugal violence. Edward Yeranian has more on the sensitive issue from Cairo.

The topic of men beating their wives has long been controversial in the Islamic world, with various Islamic scholars condoning it, and others insisting it should be forbidden, or at the very least, reduced to a strict minimum.

A series of recent fatwahs, in both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, followed by support by the fatwah committee of Cairo's venerable Al Azhar University, where top Islamic scholars have ruled that wives have the right to fight back when beaten, are still challenged in many quarters and difficult to apply, as Egyptian women's rights activist Nehad Abu El-Komsan, explains.

"Women can call the police, definitely, and they are supposed to have to respond to protect women. But, what happens, usually, police in Egypt care about other things, and they consider this is a private relation or something, so they do not respond in proper time. So the procedure comes after….she has right to go to police station and make a report….and make a court file….she will have a criminal case… So it depends on what [the] judge believes. Sometimes, judge gives a hard punishment or a hard court decision in this case some judges make their decision only to show men they have no right to do this, but it is not strong enough."

Do women have right to self defense?

Islamic scholars, while divided, are increasingly coming down in favor of the Western concept of a woman's right to self defense. This is the position taken recently by the chairman of Al Azhar's Committee on Fatwahs, Sheikh Abd al Hamid Al Atrash, who tells the VOA that wives have the right to self-defense when their husbands beat them "cruelly and unnecessarily."

He says that when a wife has been disobedient and her cruel husband has beaten her badly because of it, to the point of putting her life in danger, then the wife has a right to defend herself or cry out for help, according to the precepts of Islam.

While decrying harsh or cruel treatment by husbands toward their wives, Sheikh Al Atrash, nevertheless, says that Islam allows husbands to rein in their "recalcitrant wives.

Sheikh al Atrash argues that Islam provides husbands a series of measures to make their wives obedient, using various forms of discipline, from verbal admonition to temporarily cutting off relations to the eventual stage of physical punishment. He adds that the sayings of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, the sunna, forbid anything more than light physical discipline.

Conjugal beatings have become cause celebre in Arab world

A top Saudi woman journalist, Rania al Baz, became a cause célèbre in the Arab world, several years ago, when she was beaten almost to the point of death by her husband. Baz ultimately survived the beating, but pictures of her horribly swollen and disfigured face fueled the debate in the Islamic world over conjugal beatings.

Baz, in an interview with Saudi-owned MBC TV, explains how her husband beat her and the extreme cruelty and violence he employed.

She says that she had a sense that her husband was going to beat her, but thought she could forestall the beating and seek refuge at her father's house. Once the beating got under way, though, she recalls that her husband insisted that he was not only going to beat her, but kill her, as well. The husband then grabbed her by the neck, threw her to the floor and began strangling her, his face contorted by hatred and anger.

Baz adds that she lost consciousness while being strangled, and can't remember how her husband beat her face, but that she eventually found herself in the hospital, surrounded by her family.

Rania al Baz's husband, Mohammed al Fallata, was eventually sentenced to six months in jail and 300 lashes by a Saudi judge. The Saudi English-language daily Arab News called the sentence "relatively lenient," and the judge claimed that there were "mitigating circumstances."

Some countries support woman's right to protect herself

Al Arabiya TV reports that a top member of Saudi Arabia's consultative Shura Council, Sheikh Abd al Mohsen Al Abekhan, ruled in a well-publicized fatwah, recently, that a wife has the right to use the "same violence against her husband, that he uses against her." A Turkish-born Islamic scholar quickly followed suit with a similar ruling.

In Lebanon, top Shi'ite moslem cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah came out in favor of a wife's right to self defense in a ruling that shook the Shi'ite world, several years ago, and Lebanon's Sunni Mufti Abd al Rashid Qabbani, made a similar ruling, last year.

Islamic preacher argues violence can be used as 'disciplinary measure'

Nevertheless, many Islamic scholars disagree with the recent fatwahs, or Islamic decrees, like Islamic preacher Walid bin Hadi in Qatar who argues during a Friday sermon that "violence must be used to discipline certain women".

He said everyone must be aware that beating is allowed by Islamic law as a punishment. He says no one can deny this, since it was mandated by God, who created the human being. If you buy any piece of equipment, he argues, you receive a manual to operate it. In this way, he adds, God gave the Koran to guide people, and keep everyone on the right track.

The sheikh goes on to explain why he thinks that wife-beating is necessary in certain cases.

He insists that there are some types of women with whom it is impossible to live, unless they are beaten.....These sorts of women, he adds, have been beaten throughout their lives to keep them in line, and that a husband must continue to beat them to keep them on the right track.

Despite the recently issued fatwahs permitting women to fight back when beaten, lines between those in favor and those opposed appear to be firmly drawn on Al Arabiya TV's website. A majority of men appeared to defend the beating of wives, while a majority of women appeared to oppose it.