Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
April 2012


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Why The Fairer Sex Cries 'Unfair'

‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’ And herein lies my predicament: In past months I have watched TV reports on honour killings, read Facebook posts on the trafficking of women into Syria, viewed a lecture on the women violated in Tahrir square by armed forces, received emails on domestic violence fatwas, and then a report on female infanticide in India.  It seems the trajectory of violence against women can start from birth and, in the instance of pre-natal screening technologies in India and China, lead to selective abortions, sometimes even before birth.

The momentum continues:  a UN forum commemorates the International Day for Zero tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, the next day a seminar on the UN Convention Against Torture and how it can be used to combat violence against women. Other abuses include forced marriages and acid burnings. The resources available to investigate and prosecute offenders are inadequate. This only confirms the systemic prejudice against women and abuse of their human rights that becomes validated by the State. Women and violence - two issues inextricably linked across borders, politics and faith. Throw in the ‘Muslim’ factor, and you have guaranteed the tabloids a ‘Good News Week’, most weeks of the year.

It appears that none of these issues are occurring with any immediacy in our Australian backyard. And yet this gives me cold comfort for, on closer inspection, my complacency is undermined. One assumes that Muslim women, who may have encountered violence in their past lives, leave such experiences behind after moving to the ‘West. But the reality suggests otherwise.

National statistics show that, with regard to domestic violence in Australia, Muslim women are over represented in the welfare sector as users of emergency services. The percentage of women from Arabic, and Turkish-speaking communities are numbered in the top percentage amongst migrant women from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds who access refuges or shelters.   Similarly, when analysing service users of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights (AMWCHR), the client data indicates that between 2005-2008 over 42% of clients were women seeking assistance because of family violence. By 2009-2010, that average rose to 80%.

The continuum of violence understood as domestic or family violence, manifests itself in numerous forms. In Victoria, the Family Violence Act defines family violence as a behaviour by a person towards a family member that is violent, or threatening. Other examples include injury to a family member, damage to property, forced isolation and other threatening behaviours. The Act further includes the incidence of sexual, social, emotional/ psychological and economic abuse within this framework. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the perpetrators are male and the victims, female. 

At AMWCHR, the definition of family violence extends also to religious/ spiritual abuse, an issue pertinent to Muslim women. In this instance, it is generally men who manipulate religion to normalise their abusive behaviours to claim superiority in the relationship and exert dominance. This may occur when men threaten to take a second wife, give their wife incorrect religious information in order to further their personal interests, prevent their wife from practising her spiritual beliefs, ridicule their wife’s faith, practise polygamy in a country where it is illegal, or force their daughter into early marriage. These practices are included within the framework of abuse because their incidence reflects the casework reality of AMWCHR.

When controlling violent behaviours are inflicted on an individual, it’s important that such behaviours are understood to be human rights abuses. We wouldn’t tolerate such transgressions against Muslim women in the workplace, on the street or on public transport. Yet when they occur within the domain of the ‘family home’, the Muslim community has reacted largely at one of three levels:

  • demonstrating a deliberate or unwitting ignorance of the issue,
  • opting to minimise the perceived impact of the violence,
  • and the third, and most disconcerting level - sanctioning such abusive behaviours as culturally or religiously mandated.

Whether or not the catalysts for domestic violence in our society are borne of cultural imperative or ‘men behaving badly’, there remains a need for critical engagement with men, especially from an early age. Deploying a pre-emptive approach to ending violence starts with education in childhood and adolescence about respect and equality of sexes, grounded in secular and Islamic sources, as well as positive male role models. These remain proven methods for dealing with domestic violence in the long term.

At another level, laws that criminalise and punish perpetrators of violence afford victims some restitution. In Pakistan provincial assemblies are currently debating a Senate approved bill: the Domestic Violence Against Women and Children Bill 2012. If passed, domestic violence in Pakistan would be treated as a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and hefty fines (Daily Times, February 23, 2012). However, the bigger picture of affecting change in communities’ cultural mindsets may take generations to alter—if at all. 

Acknowledging the prevalence of domestic violence within our community is difficult, but unequivocally remains the starting point towards contending with this problem. A promising start would be to involve men prepared to step up and take responsibility for their fellow man’s culpability.  We also need to co-opt imams and community leaders who are willing to address this issue in both Friday Khutbas and public forums on a regular basis, and not only once a year on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

We need to push for approaches to Islamic interpretations that are both authentic and enlightened, stemming from equality and social justice. Forget gender balance: let’s start with gender presence in the equation. The drivers for change that make us question our ethics and gendered roles must begin.

On February 26th, Pakistani social activist and filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, became the first Pakistani national recipient of an Academy Award for her short documentary ‘Saving Face’, chronicling the life of acid burn victims in Pakistan. In her acceptance speech, she paid tribute to ‘all the women in Pakistan who are working for change’. To celebrate her wonderful achievement, and in honour of all women continuing to resist the tide of female exploitation by their 'menfolk', let us extend this sentiment to women across the globe. We do not need platitudes. We deserve and demand respect.

Tasneem Chopra

Chairperson  -Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights\02\23\story_23-2-2012_pg12_1
(Daily Times Feb 23, 2012) (Amna Nawaz, Feb 23, 2012, World Blog NBC)

If you have some concerns about your personal welfare or that of another Muslim women, please visit this site for the AUSTRALIAN MUSLIM WOMEN'S CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS