Plausible Deniability

Muslim marriage privileges men’s sexual needs as a force majeure, writes Afiya Shehrbano Zia

Plausible Deniability
It took eight years of lobbying by women activists for a law to be enacted against domestic violence. They were opposed by religious parties and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) who argued that outlawing domestic violence was ‘anti-Islam.’

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) called it a Zionist agenda and its advocates “home-breakers and shameless women.” The party’s women members objected to the “freedoms” associated with the law, insisting these challenged the sanctity of marriage and the rightful dominance of the husband.

Several women theologians defend domestic violence as an impulsive reaction of the husband when the wife tries to become head of the household. Any challenge to the Islamic sexual order disrupts the domestic balance and this logic offers the abuser plausible deniability, that is, the alibi that he is not committing an offense but only carrying out his sanctioned duty to control disruptive women.

In a video clip that recently went viral on social media, Farhat Hashmi, founder of the pietist Al-Huda movement, denied the very concept of marital rape in Muslim marriages and advised wives to willingly consent and submit to, not resist, the sexual demands of their husbands.

However, Hashmi did not justify violence, as has been misinterpreted by some outraged members of the Twitter community, including some scholars who tend to react with moral righteousness instead of informed or accurate citation.

Hashmi and her fare of piety have always upheld the patriarchal religious status quo that depends on the pious woman as the obedient subject. Previously, such criticism was dismissed by defenders as binary setting and even Islamophobic but apparently, it is now woke to be offended by such views.

Hashmi opposes the concept of marital rape by arguing that lay law cannot supersede the Islamic sexual order in which the duty-bound wife holds subordinate sexual status. Insistence on finding scriptural proof for gender equality cannot challenge religious restrictions on sexual conduct as bound within a patriarchal gendered order.

Muslim marriage privileges men’s sexual needs as a force majeure. Despite much hand-wringing about conditionalities, this is evident in the Muslim man’s unilateral right to polygamy, divorce, right to marry women of revealed faiths and significantly, payment of the haq meher for consummation.

Meanwhile, the anti-sexual harassment and #MeToo movements in Pakistan are struggling to do the opposite, that is, to liberalise sexual freedoms and expand the definitions of violence across all forms and sites, including verbal and mental abuse, in marriage and workplaces. The most common challenge here is credibility of the survivor’s claims. Let us consider this from a broader perspective.

Earlier this year, in Khaisore, Mohmand Agency, a woman shot an FC soldier against the alleged threat of sexual assault when he intruded into her house. While not a case of ‘domestic violence’ it typifies how the lines between public and domestic violence are drawn. The crime may be illegal, but it is the context, actors and power relations that determine the legitimacy of the claim of violence and whether punishment or impunity will prevail.

According to activists who subsequently visited Khaisore and heard testimonies, this was not an isolated incident. Women’s lucid, detailed allegations make it implausible that they are fabricating or conniving. Like the Taliban did in Swat, it is reported that security personnel also claim the wish to marry, tame or domesticate women of the communities. Sexual motives are disguised as the duty to suppress potential rebellion. Pulling women out of houses in search operations inverts the entire private-public social order.

It is said that the woman who acted in self-defence in Khaisore made sure to pre-emptively shoot the soldier in the compound before he could enter the house to erase any doubt that he may have succeeded in violating the sanctity of the private, or her person. The gesture reads as her conscious effort to prevent any plausible deniability about the incident.

Plausible deniability shifts the entire burden of proof on the person claiming violation. Like General Musharraf did with rape survivor Mukhtara Mai (she wants asylum), like Ali Zafar is doing with Meesha Shafi (she wants attention/fame), like Mohsin Abbas Haider is doing with Fatima Sohail (she’s playing “the woman card”). Evidentiary difficulty allows denial on part of the accused, and his office/status to determine his credible or plausible innocence.

There are two sets of challenges here.

Religious objections to the concept of domestic violence are not based on denial but recognition of the plausibility, in fact, even the high probability of violence, if women do not obey or acquiesce. Contesting this view requires endless disputations with male and women theologians – meanwhile, legal conjugal equality can be ensured through an elective secular or civil law.

More insidious is the power of abusers who shield themselves with plausible deniability and slap reprisal defamation cases against survivors. This prevents justice in cases of violence against women and needs to be amended.

The writer is a feminist researcher with a doctoral degree in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto.