Were the Shafia women victims of Islam?

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The 1964 film Sedotta e Abbandonata tells the story of a Sicilian girl who is raped. Her family then pressures her to marry the rapist to “repair” family honour, an attitude consistent with Article 544 of the Italian penal code. Until it was repealed — in 1981— Article 544 recognised this type of marriage as a reparation for the crime.

Who benefited from this solution? Certainly not the woman. It was her family, whose honour had been wronged by her encounter.

The fact is that how the ethical requirements of religion are heard often depends on who is listening. Religion is a convenient authority to invoke when justifying a dirty deed which has far more personal motivations. Some Christian societies invoked the Bible to justify slavery, using lofty moral language to dignify the utter subordination of other human beings. Did the people of the United States and South Africa practise slavery because they were Christians?

Honour killings: not in the Quran

Most Christians today would argue that slavery continued in spite of the religion. Would it be right to assume that because these professing Christians invoked the Bible to justify slavery, it is therefore a Christian practice?

It is erroneous to blame Islam for honour killings. There is nothing in the Quran or the life of Prophet Muhammad to advocate or excuse this barbaric crime. A history of patriarchal male interpretation has often supported customs that do not treat women equally — but even this bias does not extend to sanctioning family murder. Muslim feminists have re-examined the Quranic message and found it to be a rich source of support for social justice and a corrective to notions of male entitlement.

It is undeniable that places with the worst levels of honour crimes today — Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and parts of Turkey — also happen to have large numbers of Muslims. This is a reminder of the uphill struggle against the worst practices of local culture that religions so often engage in.

Female infanticide was among the first targets of Islam in the seventh century, a practice that the Qur’an warns against in the darkest terms. As it happens, female infanticide was also common in Greek and Roman societies across the Mediterranean.

Muslim women, and men, are today at the forefront of activism against honour crimes and other forms of violence against women that are as rife in western communities as they are in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In his closing comments, the judge presiding over the Shafia trial rightly derided “a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women”.

That is the problem, and it is not particularly Muslim.


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