Most Muslims believe Islam abhors violence. So why do some say the Koran sanctions “lightly” beating your wife? An ABC News investigation into religion and domestic violence reveals the fight within Islam to stop the abuse of women and prevent imams from telling victims to stay and obey.
Refraining from beating up women is now, we’re told, a core Australian value.
As Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce put it last week:“There’s no polite way to beat up your wife. If you want to beat up your wife, you can’t become a citizen of this nation. It’s as simple as that.”
So who does believe there is a gentle or prudent way to strike a woman you are married to? Was Mr Joyce referring to some of the diverse and often divergent Muslim community in Australia?
It has taken many decades to ensure Australians recognise intimate partner violence as a crime that must be exposed, not endured. In no small part thanks to former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, large swathes of the country are now conscious of the prevalence and myriad destructive forms domestic violence takes.
But one significant cultural factor influencing the way perpetrators act and victims respond has been barely discussed and is poorly understood: religion.
In an ongoing ABC News investigation, we look at the ways Islam, Christianity and other religions are being forced to confront the darkness in their own midst, the fact that some of their followers at times condone or tolerate domestic violence, and to grapple with how best to combat it.
This week, Islam.
Wife-beating as a ‘last resort’
It was ostensibly an attempt to explain a controversial verse in Islam’s holy book, the Koran, that, if taken literally, allows husbands to physically discipline rebellious wives.
In a video posted to Facebook by the Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, a radical Islamic group, two hijab-clad women laugh off the idea that Islam is “gender biased” but claim the Koran permits men to hit disobedient women — gently, using small sticks or pieces of fabric.
“He [the husband] is permitted — not obliged, not encouraged — but permitted, to hit her [his wife],” one of the women says. “That is what everyone is talking about. It should not cause pain. Not harsh.”
The backlash was swift.
Politicians including Minister for Women Michaelia Cash and Australia’s first Muslim frontbencher, Labor’s Ed Husic, called the attitudes expressed in the clip “abhorrent” and “out of touch with community standards”. Social media exploded.
And many Muslim leaders went into damage control.
Only a few weeks ago, Keysar Trad, the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, had indicated to Sky News’ Andrew Bolt that his religion allows a husband to beat his wife as “a last resort” — though he later said his attempt to explain the Koranic verse had been “clumsy“.
“To be honest,” said Adel Salman, the vice-president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, “we needed this like a hole in the head”.
He worried, he said, that it would lead to “further stereotyping of the Muslim community”.
The position that should be made very clear to all Muslims is that there is never any justification for any form of violence — against women, or in marriage.”
But the questions remain: is it clear to all Muslims? How do those who are not scholars interpret the teaching in the Koran? Why is it so complicated?
And why is it so difficult to have an open discussion about it?
ABC News has interviewed dozens of scholars, imams, social workers and women’s advocates over the past several weeks with three major findings.
First, there is a strong consensus that Islam abhors all violence, including domestic abuse.
Second, there are serious, legitimate concerns that some in the community do still believe Koranic texts support husbands abusing their wives, as revealed in the Facebook video above.
And third, crucially, that Australia’s all-male imams are often encouraging women to stay in violent situations.
Hizb ut-Tahrir a ‘minority’ view in Islam
Following the uproar, the Women of Hizb-ut Tahrir Australia posted a statement to Facebook which was later deleted.
They said they wanted to respond to “understandable concern” from other Muslims and clarify that: “Domestic violence is an abomination that Islam rejects in the strongest terms.”
However, they defended their discussions on the grounds of needing to work through difficult texts despite “liberal” opposition.
“We firmly believe that we, as a community, must not shy away from the clarification of Islamic injunctions, however controversial, let alone succumb to reinterpretations of Islam forced by liberal hounding,” they said.
“In fact, the greater the pressure, the greater our adherence to Islam must be.”
But Susan Carland, who teaches gender studies, politics, and sociology at Monash University, said Hizb ut-Tahrir was a “minority opinion within Islam” in Australia.
“In this kind of situation, we only want to be hearing from people who actually know what they’re talking about, we want to be hearing from imams and those sort of people,” Dr Carland said.
What does the Koran say?
The question of whether the Koran sanctions violence against women continues to be debated among Islamic scholars in Australia and abroad.
It’s not just academic. Social workers report that, in some instances, it has been used by abusive men to argue for women’s submission and obedience, and as justification for violence.
Debate around whether Islam permits wife beating is mostly concentrated on the 34th verse in chapter four of the Koran (4:34).
For centuries male scholars have argued that it gives husbands financial and or fundamental superiority over women, as well as the right to physically discipline — or “beat lightly” — their wives.
According to one translation, it states:
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).
However, in recent decades a growing number of scholars have argued such interpretations contradict major Islamic teachings of non-violence and gender equality.
The verse should not be read literally, they say, but in context with other Koranic verses, as well as the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who — as has been well-established in hadiths, which document his words and actions — never hit his wives, and encouraged men to treat women with respect.
“There is conjecture around the interpretation of 4:34,” Mr Salman said. “But there is zero conjecture about [the hadith outlining that the Prophet never hit his wives].
“Throughout the 1,400 or 1,500 years of Islamic scholarship, no-one has ever questioned this particular hadith.”
Violence of any kind directly violates sharia law (which is the teachings of the Koran, the hadiths, and the expertise of Islamic scholars), Mr Salman said. Muslims in Australia are required to abide by the law of the land.
“One of the core objectives of sharia is preservation of life, which is sacrosanct.”
Feminist scholars and feminists have argued that the problem is simple: for centuries Islamic scholarship has been the domain of men.
Islamophobia makes it difficult to talk about
Silma Ihram, president of the Australian Muslim Women’s Association, said that while Islam does not condone violence, “men who are less educated about the complexities of [4:34’s] application and depth of meaning can use it to justify their superiority, that their wife should behave”.
But few are willing to talk about it in public.
“There is such a reluctance for the community to publicly address issues like domestic violence because it’s seen as adding to the Islamophobic narrative — which we are already struggling under — that Islam is an ideology, that it’s archaic, that it doesn’t have relevance,” Ms Ihram said.
Furthermore, there is clear evidence that Muslim women working for equality have a substantial workload.
The NSW Government recently revealed there had been a “tsunami” of young girls forced to go overseas to become foreign brides, and called on imams to educate their communities that “forced marriage is completely unacceptable”.
Even though underage marriage is illegal in Australia, reports of backyard marriages to girls as young as 12 and 15 under sharia law remain.
Similarly, while female genital mutilation is also a criminal offence, a recent study of just one hospital — Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney — found 60 cases had been seen since 2010, many of them extreme.
Yet just as it is not assumed all criminal acts committed by, say, Christians and Hindus are reflective of their religion’s teachings, many Muslims deeply resent the same implication being placed on them.
And, as Joumanah El Matrah, the chief executive of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, points out, there is no evidence suggesting women in Muslim communities — of which there are many, diverse groups in Australia — experience domestic violence at a higher rate.
(One in four Australian women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, with one woman killed by a current or former partner every week.)
“There may be culturally different forms of violence [perpetrated in Muslim communities] that people find quite stark,” she said — for example, men selectively using parts of the Koran to justify their dominance and control of women, early or forced marriage, or female genital mutilation.
“But even then there is no data to suggest those levels of violence are extraordinary.”
However, Ms El Matrah said, Muslim men who have an abusive nature will sometimes use Islam as justification.
“My experience is that it doesn’t propel men towards violence, but for some of these men, it gives them a worldview that they are superior to women.”
‘Imam told me to be patient’
The greatest responsibility for addressing domestic violence in Muslim communities may well rest with imams, who are often the first port of call for abused women.
New research has confirmed that some religious leaders in Australia are putting women’s safety at risk by encouraging them to stay in violent relationships under the guise that they will be “rewarded” by God for for being patient.
For the study, to be published imminently in the Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, Nafiseh Ghafournia, an academic from Sydney University, interviewed in depth 14 Muslim immigrant women who had experienced intimate partner violence.
The majority of the women said their faith had been a source of resilience and empowerment in dealing with abuse — praying, for example, was cited by many as a way of coping.
“Whenever he hit me I just cried and talked to my Allah,” said one 26-year-old woman. “I asked him for help to find me a way.”
The only negative aspect of their religion the women reported was the role of religious leaders, some of whom had advised them to “tolerate” their partner’s abuse.
“No-one was helpful,” said one 26-year-old woman who sought help at a mosque. “Imam asked me to be patient because the woman who is patient will be rewarded by Allah.”
Another woman, aged 35, was told by an imam, “that the woman who is patient with her husband’s bad deeds will go to paradise”.
The imams were not necessarily condoning the men’s violence, Dr Ghafournia said.
“But at the same time, they weren’t inviting women to seek help, they were just asking them to be silent, to keep their marriage. Some of the women I interviewed didn’t even go to a religious leader [for help] because they knew the answer in advance.”
Ms El Matrah said she had heard of similar examples where faith leaders had encouraged women to stay in violent relationships for the sake of their family.
For some religious leaders, she said, “domestic violence really needs to be quite extreme before they get that it is something they need to be concerned about”.
Imams are not ‘well-equipped’ to address domestic violence
In recent months, several community groups have been leading a push to educate Islamic faith leaders about the importance of gender equality in addressing intimate partner violence.
In 2015, for example, the Lebanese Muslim Association made a video to “confront the misconception … that family and spousal abuse is tolerated within Islam”.
In it, several imams and sheiks, including the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, reject the notion that Islam permits violence against women and encourage Muslim women being abused to “break the cycle” and seek help.
“The more unequivocally that men can come out and condemn domestic violence, the better,” Ms Carland said of the video.
“Because the sad reality of a sexist world is that there are times when a man says something [and] it’s taken more seriously than when a woman says it.”YOUTUBE: Break The Cycle – Domestic Violence
Now, two new initiatives launching soon in Australia are seeking to counter imams’ lack of understanding of domestic violence.
Nada Ibrahim, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education at the University of South Australia, will next month oversee the launch of a program designed to educate about 30 Islamic faith and community leaders in Brisbane about the dynamics of domestic violence.
Many imams have been trained overseas and have limited knowledge of services and support systems available to Australian women.
Imams also strive to keep families together, which may sometimes conflict with a woman’s desire to leave a violent relationship.
“It’s about changing leaders’ attitudes towards victims, up-skilling them on proactive approaches, and making them more accessible to abused Muslim women,” Dr Ibrahim said of the Muslim Leaders Empowerment Program.
“So, for example, they may question why a victim is not leaving a violent situation, or ask, ‘What did you do to provoke your husband or partner?’
“Some people may hold [victim-blaming] attitudes like these simply because they don’t understand the dynamics of domestic violence.”
The real problem? Gender inequality
Darebin City Council in Melbourne’s northern suburbs is also preparing to launch a resource to guide Islamic faith and community leaders in promoting respectful relationships in the community.
The resource, called “Respect”, a copy of which was obtained by ABC News, was developed following a request from the Board of Imams Victoria. It places particular emphasis on the “complex relationship” between gender inequality and violence against women.
“Respect” does not specifically address 4:34, but states: “Islam clearly disallows family violence and any form of oppression or abuse. All women and men are protected under Islamic law.”
Referencing a 2014 report by Vic Health that found 19 per cent of Australians think men should be in control in relationships and be the head of the household, the resource also says:
Gender equity is key to ending violence against women. The strongest predictor of high levels of violence against women is unequal power between men and women.
As examples, it adds culturally specific references, including women being forced into becoming a second or third wife; denial of inheritance; and female genital cutting.
The resource goes on to outline numerous strategies through which community leaders can address gender inequity, including improving women’s financial independence and leadership, and promoting anti-violence campaigns.
“It is our duty to protect vulnerable women in our community,” said Sheik Muhammad Saleem, the secretary of the Board of Imams Victoria.
“And we felt that, because imams are being approached by women [experiencing partner violence], but are not well-equipped to support them, it was better to have guidance.”
Sheik Muhammad Saleem conceded imams “are not eager to break up families”.
“But at the same time, we are not insensitive to put a woman in harm’s way,” he said.
As soon as we identify a woman is in danger, we make inquiries to the husband and we advise her to take appropriate actions to keep her safe. That is the golden rule.
Mr Salman said many imams in Australia need to “change their entire attitude and way of thinking”.
“What is very clear to me is that [the training of imams in domestic violence matters] is a long term project — there’s a lot of cultural baggage and residual cultural conditioning that need to be overcome.
“This is a gross generalisation, but they will tend to put family unity ahead of the rights of the wife, but sometimes also the husband, in a marriage.
“In the Middle East, for example, there is a mindset where imams will say, ‘The wife has to be patient … the family unit needs to be maintained’. So they always encourage the wife to show patience.
“In general that is good advice — a marriage is hard work. But when it comes to domestic violence the advice needs to be … directed more towards the husband, saying, ‘There is never any justification for violence’.”
But almost all Islamic faith leaders are men
One problem with strategies designed to encourage imams to spruik the merits of gender equality is that all of them are men.
“In Australia, mosques continue to be male-dominated, hierarchical spaces that are resistant and often hostile to the voices of women,” said Mariam Tokhi, the communications director of Muslims for Progressive Values Australia (MPV).
“This is a huge problem for many young people. Can you imagine how difficult it is for a young woman to walk into the office of an imam on her own? Accessing pastoral care from imams is a real challenge.”
Though some Muslims support the idea of recognising women as faith leaders, Dr Tokhi said, “the majority of Australian Muslims aren’t there yet”.
“While there are female scholars and ustadhas [teachers], we aren’t aware of any women who have sought recognition as an imam or who lead congregations in Australia.”
For that reason, MPV runs facilitated Koran discussion groups to encourage “ordinary Muslims” to engage with more inclusive interpretations of the sacred text.
Dr Tokhi also hopes Australian Muslims will embrace the global #ImamsForShe campaign, which highlights the responsibility of imams, Muslim leaders and scholars to address violence against women by promoting gender equality in their communities.
We are tired of theology being tied up in the hands of tired, old men,” Dr Tokhi said. “It’s time for a change.
Of course, no one disagrees that training imams in the dynamics of domestic violence is important.
But for Ms El Matrah, it is more critical to work directly with women — and men — themselves.
“Legal literacy is crucial,” she said. “The more women know their rights, and the better they understand the legal system, the more likely they are to use it.”
The other opportunity not being taken up, she said, is to work specifically with Muslim men.
“It’s really hard to get them to make time for this stuff, because most of them are working, and most of them think, ‘Well, I’m not violent to my wife, so what’s the issue?’
“My view is that religious leaders are always going to be of limited use because you can get some on side by saying, ‘This is the law, and if you violate the law, you’re violating the demands of Islam’.
“But you can’t really eradicate violence unless you shift religious leaders in to accepting that women and men are equal.”