Battered into submission: Challenging the spiritual femicide of Muslim women with counternarratives from the Qur’an


Trigger warning: This essay contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence and spiritual abuse.

“And when the female infant buried alive is asked. For what sin she was slain.”
Qur’an (81:9–10)

I dug my nails into the green carpet of the bedroom floor to drag my stiff, red marked body toward the edge of the bed. I grabbed the linen sheets pulling myself up until I collapsed on my back. Lying down, I lifted my head glancing underneath my clothes at the bloody clots covering my limbs and torso. Each swollen bruise throbbed with pain making me weep louder in agony. A few hours later, I dozed off groaning every time I tried to flip from one side to the other.

Flashbacks haunted my soul all night long. For years to follow.

“Kiss his feet,” I remember J barking at me. I had to obey his command. I kneeled down placing my lips near my then-husband’s feet, while the latter grinned at the scene. J struck again with his black agal headband smashing the skin on my thighs. I cried as I crawled backward on my hands and knees trying to escape the blows. J lashed again nailing my elbow this time roaring, “No education for you. You will obey your husband and do as I say!”

This incident was one of many episodes of sexual, verbal, emotional, and physical violence I survived fifteen years ago. Numerous relatives tortured me claiming it was for my own good and guidance. At that time, I didn’t have a name for what I was going through. My trauma vocabulary didn’t include domestic violence, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, or power and control. But it sure was full of self-loathing and blaming, helplessness, and hopelessness. I had internalized every woman-hating khutba (sermon) that echoed outside of my apartment once a day, if not more, at the nearby mosques.

She is deficient in her religion and intellect.
She was created from a crooked rib.
She is doomed if she doesn’t submit to you [men].
Her voice is sin.
Beat her with a stick. Discipline her.
She is fitna.

I lost my faith to domestic violence, the men who perpetrate it, and the men in authority who encourage and justify it. Luckily, I found my way back to Allah. I came to know Him to be the Most Gracious, Compassionate, and Merciful – unlike the box most humans like to put Him in. The more healing and du`a (prayer) I did, the closer I felt. I learned to question everything the “male scholars” taught us that we have taken for granted. After all, both the angels and Ibrahim questioned Allah and He graciously responded. I have a duty then to question His creation’s unjust actions and unfathomable reasoning.

Two Ramadans ago, I begged Allah to make me understand why all the prophets were men, and why do His words leave room for the sick hearted to physically, verbally, and emotionally attack, demean, and abuse women in His name. I am not a religious scholar, nor am I trained in Tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis). Yet, in 2018 I set an intention to contemplate the holistic meanings and teachings in the stories of those who came before us. Storytelling is central in the Qur’an, connecting its various chapters, bridging the time gap between the reader and the text, and offering believers valuable spiritual and ethical frameworks to adopt and abide by. The tales evoke one’s imagination, emotions, and intellect to make meaning and to challenge and transform prevalent, poisonous belief systems. Allah says, “And indeed We have set forth for mankind in this Qur’an every kind of parable [moral story], that haply they may remember.” (39: 27).

Inspired by Zainab Alwani’s call to read the Qurʾan as a “structural unity,” I developed answers to the challenging questions and internal turmoil I have been grappling with about Islam, women, and violence. I found my counternarratives to the woman-hating khutba, and the ongoing spiritual femicide and sacrificial offering of Muslim women by Muslim men and religious public figures. Many who either think that misogyny is a modern construct (it is not) and continue to aid the perpetrators with their victim blaming, denying, and minimizing of violence. Or they perpetrate violence themselves in the shadows of the minbar (pulpit), tarnishing its sacredness. I can assure you that violence against women and other marginal identities is not a contemporary disease. Allow me to back my claims with inspirations from the Qur’anic stories of Mariam, the Pharaoh, and the angels.

Mariam and the societal disease of victim blaming

She is always talked about by scholars and preachers in reference to Issa. While her role as his mother is important, this framing takes away from her legacy as a Muslim woman and doesn’t highlight the moral code of her society. Mariam was a purified soul and chosen above the women of the world (3:42). Mariam is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an. Her image in the text is portrayed as someone whose profound worship and devotion to Allah had earned her the status of a role model to all the believers. A small number of Islamic scholars considered her a prophet. I do, too.

Growing up in a culture where asking a man for his mother’s name publicly is akin to a sin, I marvel at how the Qur’an mentions Issa ibn (son of) Mariam 22 times with two calling him as ibn Mariam only (son of Mariam). It is astounding to me that of all the miracles Allah could have given her, He chose to give her a son without a man. It is equally incredible that despite her piety, dedication, and high spiritual, moral, and ethical rank that she earned and was well-known for, the immediate response to her pregnancy from her people was that she had committed an unprecedented, grave crime. And that unlike her mother and father, she had done something evil and immoral. What does this story tell the reader about the way the society viewed Mariam, and women by extension?

It didn’t matter that she was pious all her life. It didn’t matter that her pregnancy was identified as God’s “Word.” It didn’t matter how dedicated, faithful, or honest she was. They didn’t care about the central role she played in serving the Temple. Her people blamed her, labeled her, and condemned her.

It didn’t matter how many broken bones she had.
It didn’t matter how many names she was called.
It didn’t matter how many threats she received.
It didn’t matter how many bruises she concealed.
It didn’t matter how many days, months, or years she lived in horror and fear.
It didn’t matter how good, obedient, and well behaved she was.
She was to blame.
It was her doing. Her fault.
She provoked him.
She should know better.
She should not press his buttons.
She should oblige.

The Pharaoh: When enslaving and raping women become the traits of dictators
He is mentioned in the Qur’an frequently as an exemplar of dictatorship, arrogance, and truth-twisting egotism. He was a tyrant. Every time I read how he tortured people, slaying their sons and sparing their women, I stopped to reflect on the relationship between his tyranny and his treatment of women. This connection is mentioned five times throughout the Qur’an (1:49, 7:141, 14:6, 28:4, 40:25). Many translations and exegesis of these repeated verses offer no context or analysis on what the “sparing” of these women’s lives entailed. I searched and explored. Until I stumbled upon the Tafsir al-Tahrir wa’l-Tanwir (Interpretation of Verification and Enlightenment) by Muhammad al-Tahir ibn Ashur. In his interpretation he says:

ووجه ذكره هنا في معرض التذكير بما نالهم من المصائب أن هذا الاستحياء للإناث كان المقصد منه خبيثا وهو أن يعتدوا على أعراضهن ولا يجدن بدا من الإجابة بحكم الأسر والاسترقاق فيكون قوله “ويستحيون نسائكم” كناية عن استحياء خاص ولذلك أدخل في الإشارة في قوله ((وفي ذلكم بلاء من ربكم عظيم)) ولو كان المراد من الاستحياء ظاهره لما كان وجه لعطفه على تلك المصيبة. (٤٩٢-٤٩٣)، ١٩٨٤

And it is mentioned here as a reminder of the calamities that they endured that sparing women from the killing or keeping them alive had a malicious intent which is to rape them and their only option is to comply because they are prisoners and enslaved, so His saying “and sparing your women” is a metaphor for a special type of sparing and this was included in the reference of His saying ((And in that was a great trial from your Lord)). And if what is meant by sparing is the word’s outward meaning, He would not have linked it to the great trial and calamity. (492–493, 1984)

After reading this, I released a deep sigh of relief and thanked Allah for this realization. Doesn’t this make perfect sense? There are certain characteristics and behaviors that mark someone as an oppressor or abuser. Aside from the terror that the Pharaoh’s wife Asia endured, deliberately capturing, enslaving, and raping women can only go hand in hand with the traits of a dictatorial devil. By committing any act of oppression against women, children, or minorities, you walk in the footsteps of one who disobeyed Allah, was corrupted, and his death became a sign for those who came after him (10:91–92).

You’re a Pharaoh every time you harass a woman.
You’re a Pharaoh every time you abuse a woman.
You’re a Pharaoh every time you hit a woman.
You’re a Pharaoh every time you assault a woman.
You’re a Pharaoh every time you control a woman.
You’re a Pharaoh every time you undermine or demean a woman.
You’re a Pharaoh every time you think you are better than a woman.

Angels are females: Son preference
In several verses of the Qu’ran, Allah condemns the way nonbelievers have feminized angels as a way of shaming the angels (17:40). They have assigned to Allah daughters and preferred to keep the sons for themselves (16:57–59, 37:149–153, 43:15–17, 53:21–22) resorting to killing their female infants by burying them alive (81:9–10). Why? Because having a son is associated with pride, value, strength, power, superiority, and lineage. To the extent that when someone receives the news that the newborn is female, “his face darkens, and he is choked with anguish! He hides from the people on account of the evil of the tidings he has been given. Shall he keep it [his face] in humiliation, or bury it in the dust? Behold! Evil indeed is the judgment they make.” (16:57–59). Women’s existence to the nonbelievers then symbolizes everything undesired, unaccepted, and ridiculed. Anything that is feminine is demonized. As if being a woman is an insult to humanity as much as these nonbelievers used it to insult God and His angels.

She brings shame to the family.
She is the reason why we sin.
She dresses immodestly and provocatively.
She is fitna.
Feminism is evil.
Feminism is shirk.
Don’t be such a “girl.”
It is forbidden for women to lead.
If women are rotten, the whole society is rotten.

Follow the herd blindly

How many times have Muslim women spoken against their oppression and the unjust treatment they are constantly subjected to by male family members, colleagues, strangers, imams, and all others? How many times have advocates, activists, social workers, professors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, organizers, and movements called out the abusive, violent, and oppressive experiences Muslim women endure? How many programs are out there to educate Muslims on abuse? How many organizations are working on prevention and intervention? How many programs, training, and seminars have been conducted? How many books, papers, and reports have been written? How many lives have been lost? How many bones have been broken? How many souls have been crushed? How many?

Yet there are still individuals who insist on following the herd blindly. When asked about domestic violence or sexual assault, instead of saying, “I don’t know. Ask the experts,” they blame the victim, produce more Pharaohs into the world, and subject women to more violence. Instead of addressing dangerous situations and abusive behaviors, they conceal the bitter reality in fear of ruined reputation. They worry about what the extended family will say, or what the neighbors would think, or how will the community react. They are more committed to rank, reputation, and privilege than justice. Then they go after the women. To all of them I say,

“When it is said unto them, “Follow what God has sent down,” they say, “Nay, we follow that which we found our fathers doing.” What! Even though their fathers understood nothing, and were not rightly guided?” (2:170).

“When it is said unto them, “Follow that which God has sent down,” they respond, “Nay, but we follow that which we found our fathers following.” What! Even though Satan is calling them to the punishment of Blaze?” (31:21).

And again in 5:104, 7:28, and 43:24. “Behold! Evil indeed is the judgment they make” (16:59).

If I say we’re fighting the culture of patriarchy, I will be condemned as an angry, secular feminist—the very “antithesis of Islam.” But that’s exactly what we’re fighting, and I do by embodying Islam’s teachings.

After surviving countless episodes of swollen bruises on my body, heart, and soul, I continue to live. After losing my faith and dignity, I continue to believe in Allah and in my capabilities to heal and to make a change. After passing through this world to the after, I trust that Allah’s Wisdom, Fairness, and Truth will get me and all those who have been wronged at the hands of Pharaohs ultimate and eternal Justice.

Ameen!


References
Ibn Ashur, Muhammad. al-Tahir. Tafsir Al-Tahrir Wa’l-Tanwir. Tunisia: Tunisian Publishing House. 1984.
Alwani, Zainab. “Al-Waḥda al-Bināʾiyya Li-l-Qurʾān: A Methodology for Understanding the Qurʾān in the Modern Day.” The Journal of Islamic Faith and Practice no. 1/1(2018): 7–25.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E. B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds. The Study Qur’an: A New Translation and Commentary. New York, NY: Harper One, 2015.


Hasnaa Mokhtar is the Special Program Director at Peaceful Families Project and a Ph.D. candidate at Clark University. Her research, writings, and activism focus on amplifying the voices of Muslim women and tackling the injustices of gender-based violence. Hasnaa is a storyteller at heart. In 2006, she worked as a journalist in Arab News, and later her articles appeared in Fortune, Yahoo, Bustle, Teen Vogue, and Muslim Girl. You can read her work at www.hasnaamokhtar.com. Previously, she served as the Executive Director of the Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester, MA. Hasnaa is passionate about life, personal growth, spirituality, and everything in between. 

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1 Comment

  • Susette Smith says:

    What an incredible story! Patriarchy and its associated misogyny exist, even today, within all religions and cultures. From the deserts of the Muslim Middle East to the hollows of evangelical Christian Appalachia to the halls of the wretched White House and everything in between. Misogyny and violence perpetrated on women crosses all races and socio-economic classes. The quandary that Muslim women face is they often have no escape, having been deprived liberty and the unencumbered freedom to leave their husbands, leave their religion and leave their families without severe, and often fatal, retribution.

    I hope that your clarion call to your Muslim sisters to STOP the violence is heard far and wide and that massive changes in attitudes, laws and quranic interpretations are enacted. It may take a social movement akin to #BlackLivesMatter especially during these dark days of quarantine where the risk for violence against women is greater.

    I recently read the book “A Woman is No Man” by Etaf Rum in which she describes exactly what you have experienced. Geraldine Brooks’ “Nine Parts of Desire” is a disturbing examination of personal violence that Muslim women shared with her. Both opened my eyes to the plight of far too many Muslim women.

    Thank you for sharing your incredible journey…God bless you. #MuslimWomenMatter.

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