"He grabbed me by the hair and poured acid on me while laughing," Al-Anoud Hussain Sheryan, a child bride and a victim of gender-based violence in Yemen.
Abused by her husband for years, Al-Anoud, fears for her safety and security and bravely decides to leave this miserable life, yet he follows her with full entitlement and burns her with acid.
As an Arab Muslim state based on Sharia law- Yemen has no law designed specifically to protect women from gender-based violence (Human Rights Watch, 2015). In fact, article 40 of the Personal Status Law, for example, as revised in 1998, requires a woman to be obedient to her husband. These laws governing marriage are usually derived from verses in the Quran; where exegesis was built according to androcentric and patriarchal male scholars and clergy.
I grew up knowing that men are responsible for women in all aspects of life. I believe these misogynistic claims can be contested and one way would be through Islamic Feminism
In Yemen, obedience is understood in arrested meanings -- where it means only one thing: a man’s authority over woman. It is often justified according to society’s firm believe in the concept of “QIWAMAH”, which signifies male authority. We would be taught in schools and mosques and all social spheres that the Quran has decreed the absolute authority of the husband over his wife. Thus, I grew up knowing that men are the ones responsible for women in all spheres of life.
I believe these misogynistic claims can be contested and one way would be through Islamic Feminism.
The very first time I heard about Islamic Feminism was when I was doing my MA in Interdisciplinary gender studies in Lebanon. It is a school of thought that contests outdated family laws through Islamic jurisprudence. Its goal is to deconstruct the religious patriarchy and encourage Muslim women to fight for justice by; identifying inequalities in their patriarch interpretations, then, proposing reforms that embody the spirit of Islam where justice and equality are inseparable.
As controversial as the name of “Islamic feminism” seem, I find it liberating, especially to Muslim women who are often struggling between their Muslim identity and their belief in gender equality.
Let’s go back to the concept of “QIWAMAH “and forget about what we already know about it.
Islamic Feminism’s goal is to deconstruct the religious patriarchy and encourage Muslim women to fight for justice by; identifying inequalities in their patriarch interpretations
From the Quranic verse; men are the qawwamoon (protectors and maintainers) of women (Qur’an 4:34), you learn that only men are in charge of women. However, digging deep in the message of Quran and presenting the other meanings for QIWAMAH, the Quran also mentions that both men and women have a moral responsibility to be qawwamoon of society at large and in ensuring that justice is met.
According to Asma Lamrabet, a well-known Moroccan Islamic feminist, “QIWAMAH” has two dimensions: public (qiwamah ammah) and private (qiwammah khassa).
An extract from the book Men in charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (One World Publications, 2015) :
O ye who believe! Kunu qawwamin [stand out firmly] bilqisti [for justice], as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be [against] rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts [of your hearts], lest you swerve, and if you distort [justice] or 134 decline to do justice, verily Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do. (4:135) O ye who believe! Kunu qawwamin [stand out firmly] lillahi shuhada’ bilqisti [for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing], and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do. (5:8) (P. 134, 135, 2015)
Qiwamah in the public sphere
Lamrabet explains that verses 4:135 and 5:8 demand all men and women believers to be firm in their implementation of justice (kunu Qawamian bilqisti). The Quran insists on this value of justice as it demonstrates the necessity for a morality that respects the equality and humanity of all beings.
It is true that we were taught to be just with others no matter who they were, however, when it comes to being just with women, our society refuses to believe that this is what the Quran meant. Instead, we would be preached to blindly obey the man figure in the house, be it father, brother or husband. Although I was privileged to grow up in a family that rejects to accept this meaning, a lot of Yemeni families still suffer from the consequences of the classical definition of Qiwamah. However, Lamrabet clearly explains that the idea of Qiwamah in the public sphere should more or less ensure justice is achieved among all human kind.
Qiwamah in the private sphere
Here, she explains that Qiwamah was given to the man not because of his gender, but only in his capacity as manager and financial maintainer of the household. This means that if the maintenance function were to fall on the wife- as often the case in modern societies- she should exercise this Qiwamah, thus no male exclusivity involved, nor does sex matter in this regard.
I very much agree with Lamrabet, as I believe her interpretation eliminates concepts that have been misrepresented such as the superiority of men over women.
In other words, Qiwamah does not mean men are better than women. Qiwamah does not mean men have the right to beat women just because they are married to them or in Al-Anoud’s case burn the woman till she has no features. Qiwamah does not mean blind obedience to man.
The point I am seeking to make here, is that if the use of religion to justify such acts plays a major role in the dynamics between Muslim men and women in Yemen, then it may also be possible to use religion to demand for justice.
It is definitely a time where our society needs to un-learn justifying abuse. One way to start would be through revisiting these verses that were taken for granted in the name of Islam. We can attempt to fight for women rights in a context like Yemen through progressive reinterpretation that go along with our modern realities.
The fight for equality is part of a bigger fight for social justice. If we were to stand firmly against justifying abuse and patriarchal norms, we must challenge those who claim to speak in the name of Islam
Leaving all that aside, I believe that the discourse of Islamic Feminism is somehow controversial as it still fails to explain several inequalities in Islam. However, knowing that it is just a growing field, I do find it interesting to support its premise and overall mission. I see Islamic feminism as a reformist tool to contest patriarchy within the lenses of Islam.
Torn by war and multilayered conflict, Yemen right now is still overconsumed with its political, economic and social uncertainty, the story of a woman burned and disfigured by her husband may not sound as a big matter and tends to be underestimated. But that does not mean this is how it should be. Women’s personal problems are as political as deciding who governs the Yemeni society. In one way or another, it all goes back to the concept of Qiwamah and taking the responsibility to govern moral guidelines in the society.
I truly believe that the fight for equality is part of a bigger fight for social justice. If we were to stand firmly against justifying abuse and patriarchal norms, we must challenge those who claim to speak in the name of Islam when defending and justifying horrific behaviours according to their narrow understanding of Sharia ‘a.