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A couple of weeks ago I came across this BBC Panorama story on “Women at risk” which warns that “some Sharia councils in Britain may be putting Muslim women “at risk” by pressuring them to stay in abusive marriages.” The story presents a case of a couple going to one of the Sharia councils for the judge to decide if the woman can have a divorce, the wife accusing her husband of “refusing to work, ignoring the children and verbally abusing her.” The couple had been coming to the council for a year, but the judge gives them another month “to save their month with the help of Allah.” As if the past year of their marriage was not long enough!
Apparently women’s complaints are not given much attention until something serious happens.
BBC Panorama wanted to dig deeper into the story, so they sent in an undercover reporter claiming that her husband was hitting her. The judge told her: “If he becomes so aggressive, starts hitting you, punching you of course you have to report it to the police, that is not allowed.” The wording suggests that the judge believes it is only physical aggression which is “not allowed” and a good reason for having a divorce, instead of understanding that unhealthy marital relationships lead in many cases to abuse, whether verbal or physical, and that neither is acceptable.
All of this does show that the Sharia courts (at least some of them) are failing women, as the article suggests. But what struck me is that these stories are so far removed from the story about divorce and Sharia I know. The story tells of a woman who went to a judge asking for a divorce, not because of any kind of abuse, but simply because she doesn’t feel like she is able to live according to Islamic values under this marriage.
The judge asked her to return her husband the dowry or mahr he gave her upon marriage and told the man to give her a divorce. This is the famous story that is the basis for Khula ruling in Islamic Sharia. The judge is the prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, and the couple are two of his companions.
This is Sharia, as it is represented in Islamic tradition, which is very far from the Sharia of the courts in the BBC story.
This undermining of the justice of Sharia by the courts made me reflect on the situation of someone dear to me. I will call her “M” in this post. M is our maid. I have known her since my early teenage years. The relationship between my family and hers is a long and strong one, spanning four generations now. She has been married for almost 8 years now, and her husband subjects her to all kind of harm: physical, verbal, humiliation. To make things even worse, he does not helpt in the household finances, M is the one who is totally responsible to support a family consisting of herself, her two children and her husband.
In Egypt we have this rather sexist saying: “Oh maid cook. Oh master provide!” This saying reflects the traditional roles and responsibilities within the family, as the man provides and the woman looks after the housework. Sexist as it is, to me, this model sounds fairer than the reality of M’s life and thousands of Egyptian women who share her misery. They live according to the new unbalanced model: Oh maid cook! Oh maid provide! In which the woman provides and looks after her house, while the man controls the life of every single member in the family, even the provider herself.
This understanding can be traced back to many factors, among them the concept that in Sharia men are “qawwâmûn” over women, often translated as “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women.” This is often interpreted very simplistically as the man’s right to make all the decisions, always, which is taken for granted, even stripped away from what it refers to: the responsibility of being the breadwinner.
Women rights organizations refer to women in M’s situation as “female breadwinners”. According to the most recent study in 2008 by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in Egypt, 17.3% of Egyptian families are provided for by women, 70% of whom are illiterate and from poor backgrounds. The study defines female breadwinners as those who support their families financially due to the death of husband or father or because of his illness or unemployment. This is of course true but incomplete, as many of the husbands and even fathers may be unemployed not due to illness but due to their own reliance on the women in the family to work, or they may be employed yet spend the money they earn on things other than their families.
The problems these women face are not as attention grabbing in the media as sexual harassment, an issue that everybody rushes to cover, although solving their problem is part of solving other social problems in the society. There was a brief mention of them in the new constitution that was issued in 2012, in the only article that acknowledged women rights, article 10, which states that: ”The state provides special protections for female breadwinners, divorced women, and widows.” Well, perhaps we should put this article under the heading “Good intentions,” intentions without mechanisms to implement them on the ground.
There was a ray of hope when the dissolved parliament issued a law to establish a health insurance scheme for female breadwinners, but this hope soon faded when the parliament dissolved before enforcing this law. Entities like The Social Fund for Development provide solutions like micro loans to start small projects which might solve some of the financial aspects of the problem, but does not affect the social aspect.
Both of these cases, the courts pressuring women to stay in abusive marriages, and the difficulties faced by female breadwinners who remain under the control of those deemed to be their maintainers and protectors, are related to religious understandings interpreted by men, which do not focus on the rights of women. All this reminded me of the words of Abdal Hakim Murad of Cambridge University, who has said that “A man’s jihad today is to be a man. Women are already good at being women.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that women have been “good at” taking on both the traditional gender roles, but whether they are “good” at playing these roles or not does not have much effect, as long as most women are barred from interpreting and implementing religious doctrine.