Domestic Violence and Honesty about Islam

“My father said, ‘O.K., beat her.’ I’d never been beaten like that in all my life. My uncle and cousins were all beating me. … They broke my head, and I was bleeding.”

These are the words of Ellaha, a 19-year-old Afghan girl whom the intrepid New York Times pundit Nicholas Kristof encountered in a detention center for women in Kabul. Her crime was trying to flee Afghanistan rather than accept an arranged marriage to her cousin.

In Kristof’s narrow and inextricably partisan little world, this, like everything else, is George Bush’s fault: “The entire jail” where Ellaha is incarcerated, he notes, “is a kaleidoscope of woe. It’s been two years since President Bush declared that in Afghanistan, ‘Today, women are free.’ But that’s news to the inmates.”

Women do have a decidedly better situation in the new Afghanistan than they did under the radical Muslim Taliban regime: many have resumed their educations, and even some employment opportunities have opened up for them. But evidently Kristof and the Times expected Bush to wave his wand and remake Kabul into Manhattan, with burqas magically transformed into mini skirts and tongue piercings.

But it’s likely that this latest round of Bush-bashing from Kristof, as ludicrous as it is, stems as much from an inability to look at the real source of Ellaha’s woes as from blind hatred for the incumbent. In his entire meditation on the beating and mistreatment of women in Afghanistan, the egregious Kristof of course never once mentions the Koran, with which Ellaha’s father, uncle, and cousins are doubtless deeply familiar. It stipulates: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them” (Sura 4:34). If, therefore, Ellaha’s male kin had reason to “fear rebellion” from her, they considered themselves completely within their rights to “scourge” her.

This verse is not a thing of the past. In 2000 a retired Turkish Muslim cleric, Kemal Guran, sparked a controversy in that secularized Muslim nation with a passage in his booklet, The Muslim’s Handbook. According to the BBC, “the booklet, published by the Pious Foundation, which is part of the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate, says men can beat their wives as long as they do not strike the face and only beat them moderately.” Even a relatively moderate Muslim, Dr. Jamal Badawi, acknowledges that husbands have the right to beat their wives. Quoting Sura 4:34, Dr. Badawi doesn’t deny the prerogative, but he’s clearly embarrassed by it, and tries to explain it away: “Such a measure is more accurately described as a gentle tap on the body, but NEVER ON THE FACE, making it more of a symbolic measure then a punitive one.” (Emphasis in the original.)

The problem with this “moderate” view, of course, is that the dividing line between “symbolic” and “punitive” can be exceedingly fine, and hard to find in the heat of the moment. Thus although you’d never learn it from Kristof, the divine sanction that the Koran and Islamic tradition give to violence against women is the core reason why domestic violence is epidemic in some parts of the Islamic world. The Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences has determined that over nine out of ten Pakistani wives have been struck, beaten, or abused sexually — for offenses on the order of cooking an unsatisfactory meal. Others were punished for failing to give birth to a male child.

Why didn’t Kristof say anything about this? Because it’s a lot easier to snipe at George Bush than to address deep societal dysfunction — but until these problems are faced and the Koranic sanctioning of woman-beating definitively rejected by significant elements of the Islamic community, Kristof will have material abundant enough to enable him to tweak Bush over jailed Afghan women for years to come. The plight of women like Ellaha won’t improve in a Kerry administration — even as, at least according to John Edwards, the blind will see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. The superficiality of the liberal intelligentsia’s analysis, as represented by Kristof’s column, illustrates once again the bankruptcy of the entire multiculturalist enterprise — and underscores the West’s imperative to marshal its own spiritual resources, for the sake of women like Ellaha.