Ecclesia of Women in Asia

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warm greetings to one and all at EWA.

As part of an online course with Catherine of Siena Virtual College, I have read an essay on the Qur'an and Domestic Violence by Christian missioner Nicole Ravelo-Hoërson, who works with abused women in South Africa. Here is the letter I sent her. Your comments are more than welcome!

Dear Nicole Ravelo-Hoërson,
Warm greetings from a fellow Christian missioner working in Indonesia.

I am following an online course on “Violence against Women” with the Catherine of Siena Virtual College. As part of the course I have been (re-)reading your presentation at the SAMS Congress in Stellenbosch in January 2006.

I must admit that when I first read the SAMS presentations that were published in Missionalia (April 2006), I concentrated on those which spoke to situations of communal conflict. It is only during the past couple of years that I have been drawn to issues of domestic violence, and the way Christian and Muslim scriptures are still being used to sanction it. This time I gave your essay the close reading it deserves.

Scripturally-justified domestic violence is a key issue for Muslim – and Christian – feminists in Indonesia. Indonesia has some of the strongest (recent) legislation anywhere on domestic violence. Nevertheless, the law is often made void by judges, imams and pastors when they read both the law and the scriptures from within a closed, patriarchal mind-set. I have come to see that while legislation is important, just as important is the religious and cultural mind-set of the family, the wider society and religious traditions.

Within this context, I found your précis of mainstream readings of the Qur’an over the centuries both fair and humbling. Humbling because a similar story can be told of mainstream readings of the Bible. But as you point out, Islam (as also Christianity) is not monolithic; many contemporary streams of interpretation are present among both Muslim majority and Muslim minority communities.

You begin with a key question: “Why does a merciful God allow wife abuse?” I’m not sure the question receives an adequate answer, although you do argue convincingly that the only way of counteracting the misuse of the scriptures to sanction male domination and domestic violence, is by reading the scriptures within its original social context, and through the prism of key Qur’anic (biblical) insights: names of God, fairness, justice, fundamental gender equality, and so forth.

I was pleased to read of your use of the work of Muslim scholars from outside the Middle East, such as Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman. The largest Muslim umma’ in the world is found here in Indonesia, which together with other Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand and southern Philippines), form the largest concentration of Muslims anywhere. The second largest community is found in South Asia. All too often Christians focus on the Middle East, which while of crucial importance in Islam, tends to ignore the creative exegesis and gender-justice progress taking place among a majority of Muslims. Apparently, as also with Christianity, Indonesia is “off the radar” for Christian students of Islam – unless we hit the headlines with a tsunami, a volcanic eruption or a bombing.

I was wondering what you make of Edip Yüksel, Layth Saleh al-Shaiban and Martha Schulte-Nafeh’s reformist translation of the Qur’an, published after your presentation was delivered in South Africa (Brainbow Press, 2007). They translate Q4:34 as follows:

“The men are to support the women by what God has gifted them over one another and for what they spend of their money. The reformed women are devotees and protectors of privacy what God has protected. As for those women from whom you fear disloyalty, then you shall advise them, abandon them in the bedchamber, and separate them; if they obey you, then do not seek a way over them; God is High, Great.”

This edition corrects what the authors view as four misogynistic mistranslations, each of which you refer to in your paper. In the first place, kawamuna ala al-nisa is usually rendered as “in charge of women” rather than “providers for women” or “observant of women”. In the second place, iDRiBuhunna is translated “scourge” or “beat” or “beat (lightly)” instead of “separate”. The third term, NushUz , is usually translated “rebellion” or “disobedience” or “opposition” to men rather than “marital disloyalty” (in a variety of forms). The fourth word is QaNiTat, which, although it does mean “obedient”, in the context of Q4:34 is more accurately translated as “devoted to God”.

In the book Memecah Kebisuan: Agama Mendengar Suara Perempuan Korban Kekerasan demi Keadilan (“Breaking the Silence: Religion listens to the Voice of Women Victims of Violence for the sake of Justice”), written by women and men theologians of the reformist Muhammadiyah movement in Indonesia (National Commission on Violence against Women, 2009, 180 pp.), Q 4:34 is read under the section on “The Educational Principle for Nusyǔz.” The Indonesian translation is not a feminist one (e.g. pukullah = hit/strike; menaatimu = obey you) and the subsequent explanation would come into your category of “classical exegesis”. However, the interpretation is greatly ‘softened’ for many hadiths are then quoted whereby the Prophet (s.a.w.) instructs men not to hit their wives. This reformist (traditionally ‘hard line’) Islamic movement of around 25 million members, then concludes: “Thus, the golden thread (running through the Qur’an and Hadith) implies that physical punishment as found in this ayat (Q4:34) is purely contextual and does not comprise a normative doctrine.”

Nicole Ravelo-Hoërson,
It was good to re-read your carefully researched paper from South Africa in the context of strong moves in Indonesia, even within the Islamic reformist movement, to prevent the Qur’an (and the Bible) from continuing to be misused to sanction domestic violence.

Wishing you every blessing from on High in your work counselling abused women,


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Comment by Virginia Saldanha on August 21, 2009 at 8:29pm
John, thank you for sharing the insights from your ongoing course at Catherine of Sienna Virtual College. Thank for your presence on this site - it is very encouraging. Just returned from the FABC Plenary Assembly in Manila.
Comment by John Prior on August 21, 2009 at 2:07pm
Andrea, I'll lookout for an electronic copy of the Nicole article and post it. Julia, thanks for your positive comment - much appreciated!
I'm now preparing a response to a presentation by Robert Setio, a scripture scholar from the Christian University in Jogjakarta, who is reading the text of Daniel 7 (the four beasts) in conversation with 10 large poster-size paintings by the Muslim street artist Popok Tri Wahyudi.
Comment by Sr. Julia Ong, ij on August 21, 2009 at 10:41am
Thank you John for sharing this enlightening work.
Comment by EWA Archives on August 19, 2009 at 12:07pm
Thanks for posting this. Is Nicole Ravelo-Hoërson's presentation at the SAMS congress available on-line Or is it something that you can post here? Should be interesting to read. Good of you to point out that the largest concentration of Muslims is in Southeast Asia and then in South Asia. When people think Muslim, they instinctively think of the middle-east.

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