When my sister was getting married in 2015, my father called her in for a discussion. He spoke to her about the importance of sabr (patience), the Islamic role of a wife and the expectations of our society. In his speech, he noted that although he believed he was marrying her off to a good family, unexpected events do occur; and that if ever, her husband was to lay a finger on her, she should fight back with vigour. As an Islamic scholar, my father believes perpetrating abuse – especially on one’s spouse – is against the ethos of the religion.
There are many Imams who support this motion. However, the reality in many Muslim communities, especially in northern Nigeria, does not reflect this knowledge. There are countless stories of husbands beating and raping their wives and men who believe that as a wife, she must be financially dependent on them and thus, refuse to give her permission to earn her own income. In some cases, the abusers even justify their actions in the name of Islam by intentionally misreading a particular ayah (Qur’anic verse), which has been explained several times by different scholars.
Islam does not in any way condone abuse. In the Qur’an, believers (both men and women) are described as “guardians of one another” (9:71). In a different verse (4:19), husbands are cautioned to live with women in kindness and equity. From Hadiths (sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W)), we learn that the Prophet (S.A.W) never perpetrated abuse on anyone, be it a woman or a servant. In another instance, he was asked to give advice on how to treat one’s wife. He said: “share with them the same food you have yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them.” The Prophet (S.A.W) was also quoted to have described an honourable man as one who “treats women with honour and respect” because he believed only despicable people treat women poorly.
Culture gives much emphasis on a wife’s obedience to her husband and often, abuse is condoned in the process. But religion can play a role in women’s safety; and imams and other Muslim clerics can facilitate that. They can speak against abuse more often – be it during Friday khutbah (sermons), religious gatherings, zoom events or even on social media. They should educate other Muslims about the Islamic stance on abuse. Most importantly, they should create conducive spaces for women to speak up about being victims or survivors of intimate partner violence.
Silence protects perpetrators and enables abuse; so the only way to protect women is to encourage them to speak up, listen and believe them when they do; and to fight for justice on their behalf. Justice means separating her from an abusive partner, providing a supportive environment and security for her to be independent after the separation. In Islam, harm is a legitimate reason to seek divorce from your husband; and it’s our duty to spread this awareness. It is also our job, as guardians and protectors, to ameliorate our religious environments. We need to create safe spaces so that come what may, Muslim women will confidently come and share their stories. It starts with empathy and love; these two values are at the core of Islam.