Why Islam Needs Feminist Voices to Counter Misogynistic Interpretation of Koran

Muslim women during Eid al-Adha
Muslim women attend a mass prayer for Eid al-Adha in Lahore, October 6, 2014. Mohsin Raza/Reuters

A few weeks ago, just prior to the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology met in Islamabad. The agenda for the meeting was packed, and 19 of the Council's 20 members were present. The main issue for debate was the question of whether the Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2015, passed by the Punjab Assembly earlier in the year, could be deemed Islamic. The only member not present was the Council's sole female member, Dr. Sameeha Raheel Qazi.

When the meeting was over, the Council, under the leadership of its chairman, Maulana Sheerani, issued a press release declaring that a man, under certain circumstances, was permitted to "lightly beat his wife." These circumstances include instances of "wifely disobedience": the Council enumerated the refusal of marital sex, interactions with male strangers, and even refusing to take baths of purity following intercourse or menstruation.

This wife beating declaration was part of a 163-page document that the Council presented as the Islamically permissible version of the Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015. It deemed the existing bill—already passed by the Assembly in February, which requires increased prosecution of domestic violence offenses (already crimes under Pakistani law) and tougher sentences on assailants—contrary to the principles of Islam.

Within hours, the Council's announcement, its revolting prescription regarding the permissibility of wife-beating, was making headlines in Pakistan and around the world. Many foreign news agencies presented the announcement as yet another example of the inherent retrogression and misogyny of Islam. Few bothered to mention that the Council, established in the 1970s as a consequence of a constitutional measure, has only advisory and not binding power and that of its tens of edicts and proposed bills, few have been adopted by a Pakistani legislature as law. Those, of course, are the sorts of details that are left out when a sensational headline comes along, especially one that established Islam's proclivity toward the medieval and misogynistic.

At the same time, however, the blatant provocation of the Council's latest edict cannot be explained by the latent flavors of Islamophobia that inflect media coverage of the topic. Even while the Council may be an advisory body, its connections to officialdom and popularization of its work as the final say on Islam in Pakistan undoubtedly exert normative power over Pakistani society. The ordinary Pakistani male may not know or pay attention to the feeble and rarely enforced criminal penalties for domestic violence in Pakistan, but hearing of this supposedly Islamic judgment can provide justification for his domestic dominance, his turn to physical violence.

The details of the Council of Islamic Ideology's edict, generated by its constitutionally mandated role of evaluating Pakistan's laws to see if they accord with Islam, may reflect Pakistan's still unresolved issues of secular versus theological law. In the wider perspective, its generalities point to a controversy whose persistence has been a thorn in the side of Muslim feminists for centuries.

The Council's edict—as those of other Islamic scholars who suggest that such disciplining of wives is permissible—draws from Verse 4:34 in the Al-Nisa (Women) chapter of the Koran. The traditional translations and exegesis of this verse, all of them produced by male scholars living in patriarchal societies, focus on a single Arabic term, "daraba," as meaning "to beat" rather than other proposed meanings such as "to go away." The slightly less misogynistic of the lot sometimes grant that such beating must be "light" and that it is not encouraged, its permissibility reserved for certain specific circumstances.

All of these scholars are wrong. Since the mid-to-late 20th century, female Koranic scholars, including the American Muslim feminist Amina Wadud, have revealed how an application of the hermeneutic principles of the Koran, where the text is interpreted as a whole rather than individual verses, invalidate these existing translations. In simple terms, the general principles of spiritual equality set out in the Koran as a whole require translating and understanding Verse 4:34 to mean both the male and female couple withdrawing from the situation of conflict. A contextualized understanding of the verse, revealed as it was at a time when all sorts of extreme violence against women were the norm, it represented a restriction rather than a permission. Simply put, there is no Koranic permission for husbands to beat their wives nor is there any requirement that wives must "obey" their husbands.

In recent years, Wadud, who is also one of the first Muslim women to lead congregational prayers, has been joined by other Muslim feminists such as Zainah Anwar (Sisters in Islam), Laleh Bakhtiar (The Sublime Koran) and Asma Lamrabet (Women in the Koran: An Emancipatory Reading). The feminist critique, grounded in context and hermeneutics, faces three main challenges. First, it clashes with the literalist interpretations supported and promoted by Wahabi revivalists all over the Muslim world. Second, its harmonizing approach does not provide the sort of sensationalist headlines handed with such pomp and aplomb by the Council of Islamic Ideology and hence receives little attention. Third, the widely popular logic that nothing women-centered can be authentically Islamic presents a political obstacle to the popularization of feminist critiques that seek to dislodge the male-centered perspectives represented in Koranic translation and exegesis.

Revising exegetical premises and even the abolishment of certain Koranic verses has occurred historically and been accepted as valid by most Islamic scholars. Things, however, are never simple when women are involved. As a result, interpretations of verses like Surah-Nisa 4:34 that dislodge the wife-beating prescriptions of anti-women translators and exegetes old and new are difficult to dislodge and depose from the moral geography of Islam. One victory against their misinterpretations and distortions can occur if the Punjab legislature sticks to its guns and insists on enforcing the Protection of Women Against Violence Act (2015) in its original form, rather than reverting to a version acceptable to the Council. If this happens, it would be a victory not simply for the women of Punjab, Pakistan, but for Muslim women all around the world.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan and Veil, and is a columnist for The Boston Review and The Nation Magazine. Follow her on twitter @rafiazakaria.