Tackling a difficult story

submissionSometimes reporters should be commended for nothing more than tackling tough stories. The Washington Post's Pamela Constable looked at the vitally important but explosive issue of wife abuse in the Muslim community. I don't envy her. And yet she turned out a surprisingly good and well-balanced article that is informative, fair and sensitive.

"I was perfectly happy living alone, but the family kept pushing me to marry. I wanted to show them I was a good Muslim girl," said Shireen, now 37 and divorced. When her husband became abusive, she said, relatives told her to be a better wife. When she took him to court, she said, "everyone abandoned me. I was the one who had done something wrong."

Domestic abuse is hardly unique to Muslim immigrant communities; it is a sad fact of life in families of all backgrounds and origins. Yet, according to social workers, Islamic clerics and women's advocates, women from Muslim-majority cultures face extra pressure to submit to violent husbands and intense social ostracism if they muster the courage to file charges or flee.

A major obstacle to recognizing and fighting abuse, experts said, can be Islam itself. The religion prizes female modesty and fidelity while allowing men to divorce at will and have several wives at once. Many Muslims also believe that men have the right to beat their wives. An often-quoted verse in the Koran says a husband may chastise a disobedient wife, but the phrasing in Arabic is open to several interpretations.

The article uses personal stories and a wide variety of analysts who say that any justification of wife abuse is a clear violation of Islam's peaceful teachings. Constable presents information that indicates the problem in the Muslim community is more a failure of clerics to address wife abuse rather than the sura in question. Beyond that, her focus is on political and community solutions.

There are limits to how much information one can include in a story. And I can understand the reticence a reporter might feel about delving into religion in a story like this. But I find it interesting how in the last paragraph excerpted above, Constable mentions this "often-quoted verse" and describes it as referring to chastisement and being open to interpretation -- without actually quoting the verse. She also doesn't speak to people who defend any interpretation of the verse other than a very reformed one.

Because I sort of resent that the Post is keeping Sura 4:34 from us, I'll quote a translation that I believe to be reliable:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband's absence what Allah would have them to guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance); for Allah is most High and Great (above you all).

Constable is correct when she says it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It is.

There are also many other verses in the Koran and sayings in the Hadith that deal with how men should treat their wives. But rather than pooh-pooh the notion that this verse might in any reasonable way condone physical discipline of a wife, might it not be interesting to hear from some folks who defend it or at least think of it as a challenging verse? I commend Constable for covering this difficult issue, but I think the story as written really better serves as a good introduction for the non-Muslim community. I'm not sure the story and its reluctance to truly address a tricky verse and aspect of doctrine accomplishes much within the Muslim community in terms of dialogue or understanding.

There are other examples of Constable walking right up to religious angles without delving into them, but the story is so interesting and balanced that I don't want to give the wrong impression. I just hope any articles that follow up on this delicate issue manage to address the religious angle with a bit more depth.

The image comes from Theo Van Gogh's provocative and controversial movie Submission. The movie deals with violence against women in Islamic societies and tells the stories of four abused Muslim women. I've always wondered why Van Gogh's death isn't remembered more. Shortly after the film was released in 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri (a 26-year-old well-educated Muslim and Dutch citizen) shot Van Gogh eight times, cut his throat (nearly decapitating him) and stabbed him in the chest. Two knives, attached to a five-page note, were left implanted in his torso.

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