When reports emerged this month on how religious figures in Pakistan denounced a new domestic violence law, after years of work by women’s rights organizations, I was shocked at first, but ultimately I was not surprised.
For years, religious talks shows have dominated network TV screens, in Pakistan and in various Arab countries, with extremely chauvinistic messages. In places where there are no social workers, no culture of couple’s counseling or individual psychotherapy, religious talk shows have become a major source of information for many women who are seeking guidance on their relationships with their husbands.
One popular show’s format features a religious cleric sitting behind a desk taking anonymous calls from viewers seeking advice — most of them women. On a recent broadcast, one caller’s voice was timid as she asked the religious cleric how she might improve her relationship with her husband. Seeming indifferent to the caller, the cleric asked her with a tone of annoyance: “I don’t understand what your questions is. What are you trying to get?”
“Well, I want to see how I can be a friend with my husband,” the woman explained hesitantly.
“What do you mean?” the cleric asked with mounting irritation.
“Well, he comes from work with things in his mind and I would love to be the wife where he can share what’s in his mind with me, so I can better support him, but I don’t’ know how to do that?” the woman explained.
That’s when the cleric snapped and started ranting: “You women complain too much. All what you need to do is to clean the house, cook good food, make sure the kids have made their homework and by the time the husband arrive home you should have your best clothes on, put your perfume on, have the kids dressed up and sit waiting for him with warm food. That is all you need to do. Maybe when he is relaxed and happy after you make sure that everything is perfect in the house, maybe then he will open up to you. Do you have any other question?”
The woman hung up, leaving the viewing audience to process the oddness of the moment.
One can watch hours and hours of these shows, at all times of day from morning to evening prime time. For years, religious clerics have been the primary source of information on marital relationships, and at the core of their teaching is men’s superiority to women. One of the most popular hosts, with millions of viewers, is Mohammad Al Arifi. He presides over a salon format, talking to young men about various issues. In one segment, he explains to men the rules for beating their wives. “Just like you don’t beat a donkey or a camel from its face if you want to steer it in a certain direction, you should not beat a woman from her face,” he said. “There are other areas of her body where you are allowed to beat her from, such as her arms or her legs or back where it does not show to the public.”
His recommendations are based on his assumptions that all Muslim women are expected to cover from head to toe, thus bruises in her arms and legs would not show. “As beating is a form of discipline, you should beat from areas that can send the message but not create permanent deformity, be it in her chest area or face,” he added.
Needless to say, the opinions of the TV clerics do not reflect those of all Pakistanis, or of all citizens across the Arab world, but these shows are culturally in sync with large segments of these societies, and they definitely dominate the air waves of mainstream TV networks. They also have influenced mainstream discourse regarding husbands’ legal rights over women and the issue of domestic violence.
Today there is no legal recourse for victims of marital rape whatsoever. Those who differ from traditional definitions of the woman’s role as confined to cooking, cleaning and rearing children while the husband focuses on providing income for his family by far do not have as much of a mainstream platforms as the religious clerics have managed to dominate. Women’s rights organizations — or even those who use popular culture such as music to draw attention to women’s rights — are seen as too controversial to be given air time. A Palestinian hip-hop group known as DAM tried to tackle the issues with a song criticizing social acceptance of domestic violence and the restriction of women’s roles. But their voices, like those of other who share their values, have been given few public platforms if any. Eventually such liberal voices speak more to each other than to the mainstream public and the struggle to keep moral up is a constant issue.
The sad news is not only the repeal of such laws by religious authority, but also that the TV clerics are not viewed as extremist within the region. The struggle against the most extreme and violent groups, such as ISIS, has not led to a flourishing of moderate voices and more support for women’s rights. Rather, it seems to have unleashed a competition for “who’s the better Muslim.” As long as they critique the behavior of women and not the state or political leadership, the TV clerics are given wide latitude to spread their extremely conservative and traditional views on family, women and men’s role.
Until women’s rights are taken seriously by the political leaderships as a major bellwether for the fight against extremism, the fight against extremism will only get worse. At the moment, moderates’ voices feel marginalized on mainstream level. Their expressions are seen mostly over social media. But by far their voices are not as widespread or influential as those of religious conservatives.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
Salbi will join us onstage at the 7th Annual Women in the World Summit taking place in New York City April 6-8.