Sitting in the midst of nature, surrounded by forest in a setting radically different from the bare desert of Saudi Arabia, Khaled Al-Saqaby, a Saudi “family therapist” releases a video on Saudi national TV guiding men on the rules and etiquette of wife beating. In his opening remarks, he acknowledges that he is getting into the dangerous territory of a controversial discussion. But his reference to controversy is most likely addressed to men — he is explaining to them where they may be going wrong in their practice of disciplining their wives — not to women whose rights are violated by said abuse.
“Indeed there are women who disobey their husbands and do him wrong which oblige the man to discipline his wife,” Al-Saqaby explains. He divides the discipline process into three parts: The first is “advising the wife” and reminding her of her obligations to God and her husband. The second stage entails “abandoning the wife.” A man leaving his house in anger is not the correct approach. If he leaves the house, everyone in the community will know the couple had a fight. What he should do instead is stay in the house and even sleep in his bed, but turn his back to his wife and not talk to her. This, he explains, will cause her more harm than his leaving.
Beating, he explains, is only to be used as the third stage of discipline. It should not be used by the husband to express his anger. Rather, its sole purpose is as a means for the husband to discipline the wife. Al-Saqaby then explains which tools a husband should use to beat his wife. He displays a long, thick stick and says, “you should not use that — nor should you use some hard tools as, unfortunately, some husbands do.” He takes from his pocket a very small twig and says that’s what you should use to discipline your wife. “Beatings should only be used to show the wife that she disobeyed him and annoyed him.” He explains that most husbands who use violence are misinformed and lack education, that they grew up seeing their fathers beating their mothers and they don’t question the violence.
Unfortunately, he says, some women are indeed to blame. He notes some behaviors by women that he says contribute to men hitting them. He singles out women who bicker and nag their husbands; those who antagonize by saying “if you are a man go ahead and see if you can hit me,” and those who want equality with their husbands. These women who claim equal rights, Al-Saqaby explains, are a very dangerous problem.
The video was approved by the Saudi government and aired on Saudi Arabia national TV in February of this year. Needless to say, it generated heated discussions among women’s rights activists within and outside the country. Al-Saqaby quotes verses of the Quran in the presentation, so the discussion is about religion in addition to human rights. Indeed the Quran mentions wife beating in its text. Learned scholars and Muslim feminists explain that while the Quran does indeed refer to wife discipline in the text, the word used has a double meaning. It could be “beat them” or “ignore them” or “abandon them” or “don’t speak to them.” According to Arabic language dictionaries, the word in question could be interpreted as to “strike,” “walk out,” “renounce.” As a matter of fact, I was surprised that hitting was not the correct the definition of the Arabic word, though the term has come to be commonly used in that way.
From a Saudi perspective, Al-Saqaby’s message was intended to put some boundaries around domestic violence by guiding men on limitations in practicing it. There are no records whatsoever on the rates of domestic violence in the kingdom, and there are no ways for women to report or deal with the issue other than family intervention. Ultimately, much of Saudi society believes in men’s superiority and authority over their wives, and in a husband’s right to discipline his wife as he wishes. Mr. Al-Saqaby may well have been trying to put limits on the definition of beating so as to mitigate harm to women. But the glaringly obvious problem remains that nowhere in any public discussion in Saudi Arabia is the point made that wife beating should be out of the question rather than a matter of degrees, limitations and boundaries. Instead, as with almost all of the religious scholars there, who love talking about the disciplining of wives on their talk shows, it is the concept of equality between women and men that is considered a danger.
We may not be so shocked if this perverse obsession with wife beating were contained within Saudi Arabia. Saudi culture is, after all, more conservative and, arguably, more misogynistic than just about any other Muslim culture. Saudi has long been unique in its very strict and literal interpretation of Islam. This level of severity was not adopted in other Muslim countries until very recently. But with satellite TV and the Internet, Wahabi ideas have spread across Arab and Muslim cultures over the past two decades, leading to a noticeable shift in the definitions and practices of Islam. Other countries have moved closer to Wahabi’s literal interpretation of Islam, and farther from other schools of thought, both Sunni and Shia, that interpret the religion in a way that addresses modern life and reality.
Needless to say, the danger here is not women’s equality, as Al-Saqaby would have it, but a reinforced misinterpretation of Islam that encourages extremist behavior within the religion and triggers more Islamophobia outside the religion. The two are interrelated, and if the Muslim world wants to fight Islamophobia — the most common complaint and worry expressed by those who are living in the region — they must be willing to push for a new dialogue on the meaning of Islam itself.
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.