Leave it to the good people at The Western Muslim Initiative, a Calgary-based online magazine, to provide insightful analysis of Western Muslim culture, with a healthy dose of biting humour.
Take, for example, Spam Imam, an advice column dispensed by a fictitious imam.
In one recent exchange, a concerned wife expresses her doubts about her husband’s sexual orientation: She found him staring surreptitiously at online pictures of Johnny Depp; he once called her “Jim” (her name is “Aisha”); and her foundation has gone missing.
The good imam counsels her to adopt the Islamic adage of finding plausible excuses for such behaviour, rather than finding blame: Her husband’s behaviour may simply reflect a platonic admiration for men he is trying to emulate in order to be attractive to his wife. Besides, advises the imam, foundation makes for good sealant for plumbing repairs performed by her faultless husband.
Apparently, cutting slack does not apply to the hapless “Aisha.” Spam Imam tells her to look in the mirror and see where she failed “as a wife and a woman.” Perhaps she has grown fat over the years. Or she has a successful career, and has thus challenged her husband’s masculinity. He counsels her to quit her job and concentrate on enhancing her “womanly charms” through a strict regimen of diet and exercise. She should also dress like a “harlot” at home. After all, Spam Imam concludes, a woman’s sole function in life is to take care of all of her husband’s needs.
Many within the community find such commentary uncomfortable, as it reinforces the unflattering stereotype of a misogynistic imam. However, this misses the point of a larger truth: namely, that disturbing attitudes toward women are alive and well within Muslim communities. A casual reader could be forgiven for failing to see the humour of Spam Imam, especially in light of recent real-life pronouncements in relation to violence against women. Truth is not only stranger, but harsher, than fiction.
In May, conservative Afghan legislators successfully blocked laws aimed at protecting women from violence, child marriage and becoming the objects of bartering. Some even argued that these laws were “against sharia,” and would lead to social chaos. What did these parliamentarians find so objectionable? For one: the criminalization of domestic violence. Conservative lawmaker Mandavi Abdul Rahmani was unequivocal in his belief that the Koran allows a man to beat a “disobedient” wife, as long as “she was not permanently harmed.” Another object of ire: protection of victims of rape from the charge of adultery. According to Mr. Abdul Rahmani: “Adultery itself is a crime in Islam, whether it is by force or not,” reflecting the Afghan custom of prosecuting raped women for adultery. The alleged fear is that such laws would encourage women and girls to leave their homes. Nonsense. The real fear is losing control and power over their lives.
A similar sentiment was displayed in March, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood issued a list of objections to a proposed United Nations declaration to condemn violence against women, including opposition to criminalizing marital rape and viewing marriage as a partnership between husband and wife with “full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as spending, child care and home chores.” Instead, the Brotherhood believes the husband should be the “guardian” of his wife.
According to The New York Times, Brotherhood “family expert” Osama Yehia Abu Salama advised female marriage counsellors: “A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house.” If she is beaten by her husband, she shares the blame. And women are like children: They simply can’t be trusted to handle freedom, according to Mr. Abu Salama. Such views are also held by a subset of conservative women.
And one can readily find imams from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India and Pakistan who preach domestic violence as a means of control – whether at the pulpit or on satellite TV shows.
There needs to be pushback. Those who believe in the human dignity of men and women must speak forcefully against such dehumanizing cultural practices. There is ample precedent within Islamic teachings to advocate an alternative approach in which both genders are partners in building vibrant families, communities, and societies. Thankfully, there are community workers and imams, here in the West, who are paving an indigenous form of the faith that incorporates gender equality. We still have a long way to go.