NOW Lebanon: Why was the fatwa condemning violence against women issued now, not earlier? A number of women’s groups and activists welcomed this fatwa, but said that it also encourages violence, as it allows women to use violence to defend themselves. What is your opinion?
Jaafar Fadlallah: In the name of God, most Gracious, most Merciful.
As I have said, this fatwa is nothing new, especially since Sayyed Fadlallah has several important innovative and vanguard contributions to the women’s issue, and since he has published several works in this field as well. He has always asserted that Islam grants women their rights as it does with men. However, it differentiates men by their role as managers and sponsors of marital life based on some physical and physiological characteristics with which – unlike women – their bodies are not burdened. This difference also pertains to the fact that men are, according to the Sharia, entrusted with responsibility of economics and the livelihood of the household in general. On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, this fatwa is, however, bound to be controversial, especially since Eastern and Western societies wrongly hold Islam – and religion in general – responsible for violence against women.
Therefore, it is necessary to discuss Islam’s opinion on this issue, even though we know beforehand that this opinion is by no means new and probably not unique. In reality, the social condition of women has provided some sort of cover or condoning of violence, which drove some clerics who adopt a different opinion to make do only with ethical advice to married couples without shedding light on the point of view expressed by the Sharia. Indeed, the latter proscribed violence exerted by men against women and vice-versa, while defining it within very specific limitations.
Family is, by nature, man’s most private circle. Therefore, it cannot be exposed to the same control mechanisms that govern reality and public life by having the judicial authorities intervene. This is limited to the cases when one of the spouses files a lawsuit against the other, and we cannot possibly put a policeman on guard at the house’s door. Therefore, the issue of finding measures belongs by nature to the social order in public life and cannot be used in quite the same way within the family. Furthermore, when it is said that a man does not have the right to hit his wife and that, when he does, she has the right to retaliate in the same way, this delegitimizes a husband’s beating of his wife. It also paves the way for changing society’s mentality with regard to the issue of beating women, since one of the most important reasons behind marital violence is the fact that society overlooks it and tries to justify men by blaming women. Hence, this fatwa contributes to establishing an educational base, which probably extends into the future so that men are taught that they do not have the right to beat women outside the framework of the institution of marriage, while women have the right to retaliate to an assault in the same method outside wedlock. Anyway, men should not beat women within the institution of marriage as well.
When talking about women’s rights, there are two aspects to focus on. First is a confirmation of women’s right to repel any aggression. The second is a realistic reaction to a woman’s personal choice over how she can preserve her marriage, given that beating may be sometimes related to urgent, momentary circumstances. What we are saying, however, is that if a husband makes a habit of it, a control mechanism has to be found. In fact, we believe that a person is deemed weak by someone else when she surrenders to her weak points and to a state of total submission to the other party’s strengths.
NOW: Can you tell us more about other fatwas related to women’s rights?
Fadlallah: Some things in Islam have exerted an influence on the issue of violence, which is an essential question emanating from our daily reality. According to some statistics – whose accuracy has not been ascertained – one-third of married women in Lebanon are beaten. This goes without mentioning the violence against women in Western societies, which perhaps takes many shapes, including marital violence. Other elements pertain to the fact that Islam honors women. I believe that this is an important issue, since Islam honored women in the Holy Quran itself and granted them the same responsibilities as men, thus making them equal to men in terms of reason. Indeed, there is no difference between men and women on the level of reason and development of both reason and culture. Therefore, men and women are equally responsible in Islam and are convicted based on the same standards. In other words, women’s responsibility toward society is one and the same whether with regard to corruption or to reform. For instance, the Holy Quran says… that both men and women are responsible for calling for reforms within society. Accordingly, this leads to a general concept according to which a woman is entitled to participate in all movements aimed at reforming society on the social, political, economic and even security level if she is competent enough to fill in these positions.
Only one element remains with regard to the family as such… Islam does not transform women into men’s property in virtue of the marriage contract. In fact, according to Islam, no one is anyone else’s property, not even children. Therefore, marriage is not a conveyance of property, but rather… a contract between two parties according to which each one is independent of the other in terms of rights... Men are responsible for managing the marital household rather than owning it, and that they should not submit this household to their changes of mood. The household should be rather built on bases that are predefined by both parties.
Next comes the issue of the children’s education, which is equivalent to an extension of the family. Children are raised on an equal basis by both men and women. One cannot naturally expect weak women who are deprived of their rights to raise a balanced generation on the psychological, emotional and intellectual levels. Therefore, the only characteristic granted to men by Islam is the issue of guardianship, i.e. the management of the marital household, as in any institution that needs some sort of realistic reference. In other words, women take on a physical burden related to pregnancy, giving birth, lactation and nursing. This provides their husbands, who do not shoulder such burdens, with a margin of freedom that makes them naturally and physiologically qualified and grants them economic authority... Hence, it is only normal for them to be prepared to manage life. Nevertheless, this does not mean that women cannot participate in making the decisions that pertain to the couple or the family as a whole. The matter is not only one of rights but is also related to the emotional and spiritual relationship and the level of psychological harmony between a husband and his wife. This automatically drives him to consult with her, thus creating a state of familial peace that reflects on the household.
Sayyed Fadlallah also believes that, from a scientific point of view, nothing prevents women from attaining a high level of religious culture… if she uses the very bases of jurisprudence. Therefore, she can be a reference whose jurisprudential opinion may be sought. Nothing prevents women from holding judicial positions, particularly on the level of institutionalizing the judiciary.
Sayyed Fadlallah initiated discussions on the issue of honor crimes, whereby he deemed that society has no right to condemn women to death or exile based on suspicions. This issue is actually entrusted to the religious-judiciary institution, which checks for conformity with the Sharia and which issues judgments that are not bound to the rights of men, but rather judgments based on the Sharia. Hence, suspicions represent a reason for which women are killed in so-called honor crimes. Many, for instance, are raped and are still killed or buried alive in order to erase the subsequent shame. The killer in this case is a murderer, and this drove Sayyed Fadlallah to call upon all legislative parties in several Arab countries to abrogate the extenuating circumstances from which a man benefits, even if he assaults a woman and unrightfully takes her soul, knowing that such an action is prohibited by God.
Furthermore, Sayyed Fadlallah has a given opinion on the legal age for both girls and boys. Indeed, he deems that men and women are equal, since this issue emanates from the natural and sexual maturity when both women and men are capable of having children. This sexual maturity was set at 13 years of age, as it represents the age when most women reach puberty. Therefore, if a girl reaches puberty at age nine, she only becomes qualified and responsible when she reaches the sexual legal age of 13 years old. This is based on a thorough study of the relevant religious texts. We are aware that the general orientation of the Shia doctrine defines puberty for girls at age nine compared to age 15 for boys. The age of nine was used as a basis in some versions since menstruation depends on a series of factors, the most important of which is climate, which plays an important part in early menstruation in hot areas. The texts were drafted in the Arabian Peninsula, which is known for its hot climate.
NOW: What kind of discussion has this fatwa instigated in society? Who is against it and who responds positively to it?
Fadlallah: Any kind of new opinion that is contrary to the prevailing existing ones creates a shock. Therefore, we expect this fatwa as well as others to be controversial. The polemic is over, on the one hand, the social heritage regarding the relation between men and women and the way women are viewed. On the other hand, there is what can be referred to as liberal, vanguard or progressive thinking, which tries to tackle the issue from a more comprehensive point of view, based on religious heritage, which is interpreted according to a different jurisprudential reading. It is worth mentioning that, even on the level of religious jurisprudence, the authors of jurisprudence themselves are subject to the cultural influences that govern the way they look at things. This is what makes one jurisprudential reference different from another.
In any case, this polemic is important on the scientific level because it enables us to shed light on the issue of women and violence against women. These angles are also in keeping with the prevailing cultural heritage, since they compel traditionalists to reevaluate the matter. Therefore, the issue of dialogue and controversy over scientific issues paves the way for developing the way they are perceived by society in general. Hence, the fatwa is, by nature, an influential factor in a society that relies on religion as the main source of guidance... This makes allowance for all kinds of intellectual wrangling when people adopt or reject this different opinion.
NOW: How do you define societal modernization?
Fadlallah: The fatwa provides a basis for a different vision, thus for a different social behavior. Society nowadays wrongly uses as a reference a religious fatwa justifying men’s violence against women. However, a close look at other non-religious societies reveals the existence of violence against women as well. The religious factor is, thus, far from being the only one vindicating violence against women, which means that the preconceived idea about religion is false. When we legitimize such actions, it means that they no longer benefit from the cover provided by the religious Sharia. Therefore, all other factors pertaining to the social, psychological and educational dimension should be in conformity with the fatwa or religious opinion, which views violence against women as contrary to the Sharia. This paves the way for a different vision, hence a different education and a different kind of behavioral training within the family, the household or society.
This is reflected in various educational and intellectual activities in the fields of jurisprudence and science, and others on the legal and judicial level. These factors are all added to the civil-society associations, as they provide the bases needed to restore women’s confidence in themselves and for men to respect them both within and outside of marriage. They also enable men to view women as strong partners in life with whom they can establish a strong generation. Indeed, if one of them is weak, it would exert a negative influence on the family as a whole. At this point, one can speak of a change in society, which moves from the level of opinion to the social level, which ultimately leads to a behavioral change. In my opinion, one of the most important problems is women’s deficient self-confidence, knowing that society contributes to undermining this confidence by consecrating discrimination between men and women.
NOW: Sayyed Fadlallah first came to Lebanon to establish religious schools. Today, you also run the Shia Islamic Sharia Institute. How does this institute function, and how does it participate in the process of change?
Fadlallah: With regard to educational institutions, statistics reveal that there are schools and charity organizations for orphans that are headed by women, since they have proven that they are more competent than men in such positions. One finds more women than men in some administrative functions. In this respect, women are fully exercising their rights and are excelling in some positions... There is even a school, the Imam Hassam School, which is a boys’ school, which is headed by a woman… We do not question whether women are more competent than men. We rather cast a realistic look at things and speak of this real experience and its component factors.
Therefore, researchers must take into account realistic experiences as well, especially since women managed to record major achievements on the educational, social, economic and political levels.
NOW: In your own opinion, what is the role of women in politics today? Do you think that one day we will see a Shia woman as a deputy or minister?
Fadlallah: This is most certainly true, as it is guaranteed by the social reality. In reality, however, the issue requires – as we said – the concurrence of several elements, the first of which is for women to have faith in their ability to hold leadership positions. Their basic reference should not spring from the fact that they are women, but rather that they are worthy of this particular parliamentary or ministerial position...