Religion should never serve as an excuse for limiting fundamental rights, and the right of the women are no exception. Unfortunately, religion is sometimes used to justify gender-based violence and violence against women. Women have always suffered from discrimination and have faced acts of violence for centuries but, as a result of women’s emancipation, more attention has been paid to the issue and the role of religion, and more particularly religious culture and religious interpretation.
It is not that warlords in the Congo claim that God is on their side to justify their mass rapes, or that the Quran directly instructs abusers to throw acid at a girl’s face if she dares going to school, it is that religions have rather been used to create such discriminatory contexts. The subjective interpretation of religious texts by religious leaders is certainly responsible for encouraging the idea of inequality between men and women and ultimately violence against women.
Violence within the domestic sphere is also problematic as religions have been used to develop sexism and patriarchal tendencies. All religions are unfortunately touched by this issue in some way. For instance, some Christian communities sometimes excuse domestic violence, including rape, based on the interpretation of verses of the Bible. The 2018 Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF)’s report on women’s rights and religion, ‘A report on women’s rights and Christianity, Islam and Judaism’, highlights the case of a Swaziland woman who explained that: ‘one of the things our religion is teaching is that once you are married, you are automatically consenting to sex so there is no reason to say no, whatever the situation.’ She then described the ways pastors condone domestic violence by preaching that ‘if your husband is abusive it means that you have not prayed enough…You have got to pray, you have got to fast, and if you do that honestly and truthfully then the Lord will answer you.’ Religious interpretation can also prevent adoption of protective law, as was illustrated by a case in Uganda when in 2005, the Parliament tried to pass a Domestic Relations Bill that would have criminalised domestic violence, including marital rape. Christians and Muslim groups alike, were able to successfully campaign against the adoption of the bill.
It is the interpretation of some Biblical verses that often lead to the above discussed mindsets. Consider Ephesians 5:22-24 or Colossians 3:18-21 which reads: ‘Wives submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.’ Although this verse actually promotes a certain degree of gender equality, individuals may decide to interpret it in a different way or put emphasis on the first part of the verse solely.
The Jewish community has not been spared by problem either. The HRWF report mentions the results of a study conducted among ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Israel. While the majority of men agreed that a husband should not beat his wife under any circumstances, around ten percent of men disagreed with that statement. The study also showed that around twenty-seven percent of the participants agreed that women who are beaten enjoy suffering.
Interpretation of Jewish law can show some ambiguity in that regard. According to one of the most prolific and influential rabbi Maimonides, Jewish law forbids a husband from forcing his wife to have sexual intercourse against her will: ‘He should not engage in relations while intoxicated, nor while quarrelling, nor out of hatred. He should not engage in relations with her against her will when she is afraid of him.’ (Isurei Biah – 21:12). However, he contradicts this statement in his writings when he writes: ‘a man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore, a man may do whatever he desires with his wife. He may engage in relations whenever he desires.’ (Isurei Biah – 21:9).
Contradictions in writings are also present in Islam. While some passages of the Quran portray marriage as a union of equality and reciprocity, others, if interpreted literally, present men and husband as superiors to women and condone domestic violence. Consider these sentences: ‘they (your wives) are your garment and you are a garment for them’ or ‘(marriage is) a means of tranquility, protection, encouragement, peace, kindness, comfort, justice, mercy and love’ compared to others also found in the Quran: ‘Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other […] So righteous women are devoutly obedient […] But those from whom you fear arrogance […] strike them. But if they obey you , seek no means against them.’ Furthermore, in one of the major hadith collection, Sunan Abu Dawood, it is said that the Prophet Muhammed is giving permission to beat women when they have become ‘emboldened’ and that we should not question a man who beats his wife. Even though, most do not interpret it as an explicit justification to violence against women, in some Muslim majority countries, it leads to the lack of regulation and implementation of laws addressing gender-based violence.
In Pakistan, for instance, legal loopholes prevent the numerous women victims of domestic violence from filling a complaint. In 2015, the Pakistani government failed to pass the Protection of Women Against Violence Act due to claims by Pakistani religious political groups that such bill would go against Islam’s values. Cases of domestic violence increased significantly in Saudi Arabia, in 2016, after a preacher, Mohamad Alarefe, declared on national television that ‘Allah created women with these soft and fragile bodies because they use their emotions more than their bodies and that’s why you find men discipline their wives with beating while women discipline their husbands with crying’. He concluded his speech by saying ‘the point of the husband hitting his wife is not to cause pain but to get obedience.’
It is important to stress that gender-based violence, including domestic violence, is a direct violation of some of the most fundamental international treaties, which means that women have the right to be free from violence. While cultural values cannot be exported nor imposed, human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible and interrelated. Everyone possesses the same rights regardless of their race, their gender, their country and their religion. If the European Union truly is the leader in human rights advocacy that it pretends, it must also be the leader in addressing violence against women based on religious interpretation, both inside and outside its borders.