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Domestic Violence and Islam

Early Saturday morning, Februrary 14, like the majority of Buffalonians, I was watching the news about the crash of Flight 3407. I had received phone calls not only from friends and family on the West Coast but from the county of my national origin, Iran. Somehow it did not feel good each time I said, “We are okay, thank God.” The crash of yet another plane came too close to home this time around, and it affected all of us. A sense of the tenuousness of our lives, along with feelings of loss, was floating in my head as I answered another call.

“Professor Shahram, have you seen the news about the decapitation of the Muslim wife by her husband?” The voice I recognized as one of my students, but the act surpassed me as I was still in mourning for the victims of the crash.

“You used to appear regularly on their station offering legal analysis of Islamic laws,” the student continued. “Are we still going to participate in the debate on ‘Domestic Violence Among Muslims’ televised by Bridges TV?”

“I’ll talk to you later.” That is all I could say before I hung up.

I teach Effects of Islam and Culture in the formation of Family Laws, at the UB Law School.

Domestic violence in Muslim families is often discussed in my class because certain verses from the holy book, the Qur’an, have been used to justify violence against women. Codified family and criminal laws as they are practiced in some Moslem countries do not recognize domestic violence against women as a crime. Even in those counties who have recognized domestic violence against women as a crime, the punishment is heavier for the abused than the abuser.

Just the other night a friend invited me to watch the classic French movie Mississippi Mermaid made in the early 1960s by the French director Francois Truffaut. At some point in the movie the wife tells her husband about the punishment for committing the crime of passion.

“If you kill your wife, you could defend it under the law of ‘crimes of passion’ and eight out of ten jurists will acquit you.” She accurately referred to an antiquated French Neapolitan law, which acquitted a husband from killing his wife if the wife was caught in bed with another man.

The so-called “crime of passion” was exported to Arab countries under the French colonization and was codified later, allowing a husband to kill his wife not only in bed but also in any perceived compromised situation. Killings in such “compromised situations” became known as “honor killings” in many countries such as Jordan and Pakistan. There have been cases of a husband or father killing his wife or daughter because they perceived that the women were not decent. Some of these perceived situations have included the simple act of a woman asking for a divorce.

Whether the brutal decapitation of Aasiya Hassan by her husband H. Hassan had anything to do with any such beliefs is not the issue of this writing. The goal is to clarify any misconceptions of “honor killing” as an acceptable Islamic act endorsed by the Qur’an. There are indeed verses from the Qur’an which are interpreted by some to say that a husband could physically punish a “disobedient wife.” However, that is not the majority view, as most Muslims disagree with that interpretation.

Of course we do not know enough facts to reach any conclusions in this case. But we have to be careful not to associate an individual Muslim’s violent behavior directly to his faith. Islam is a religion, with its mainstream practitioners following the exemplary life of prophet Mohammad. During his lifetime the prophet preached equality and kindness. Unfortunately, many Muslims misinterpreted what was revealed in the mid-sixth century to liberate, and it became a tool to control and oppress. To be able to divorce (reject) one’s husband is specifically mentioned in the Qur’an. (To refer to specific verses within Qur’an is beyond the scope of this section in the newspaper but for those interested plans are forming to hold an event at the UB Law School addressing domestic violence.)

As Buffalonians we are not only mourning loss of our family and friends who died in the tragic crash, we are mourning yet another case of domestic violence resulting in homicide. Aasiya become another statistic in the ever-rising violence at home, with women being usually the victim.

Nadia Shahram

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