DR ANNE ALY MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR COWAN
ABC, THE DRUM
WEDNESDAY, 18 APRIL 2018
SUBJECT: Islamic Divorce.
JULIA BAIRD, INTERVIEWER: Joining us now to discuss some of the conflicting messages about whether Islam allows for, or even at times condones, the non-physical abuse and control of women is Labor MP Dr Anne Aly in Perth, welcome.
ANNE ALY, MEMBER FOR COWAN: Thank you Julia.
INTERVIEWER: And Vice President of the Islamic Council of Victoria Adel Salman in Melbourne, welcome to you too.
ADEL SALMAN, ISLAMIC COUNCIL OF VICTORIA: Hi Julia.
INTERVIEWER: Now Anne if I can go to you first of all and ask you like, when you hear the stories of these women - many of whom like will not give their names in and are extremely uncomfortable about telling their stories for fear of reprisal – what is your response to it?
ALY: Well I completely understand where they’re coming from Julia, it’s my story and reading the report many of the stories that the women spoke about in that report resonated with me because it happened to me. 25 years ago when I sought a divorce from my husband, an Islamic divorce and he refused to give me one I was left with nowhere to go and no options and I remained married to a man that was being abusive and in an abusive relationship for longer than I should have.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us tell us why that matters. Some people say “oh well you get your civil divorce and you can just go on your merry way” why does that still matter to women to get the religious divorce?
ALY: There are a couple of reasons first of all not all Islamic marriages are registered civilly, so it may be that the only form of divorce they have is an Islamic divorce they may not have registered their marriage civilly, they may only be married religiously. But for a lot of women – and it wasn’t the case for me I have to say that I did get a civil divorce and that was enough for me, I did not get an Islamic divorce – but I do understand why for many women having that kind of loose tying of the loose end and being completely free from the marriage and from the man who often times has been abusive kind of gives them that, that completeness that they’re seeking.
INTERVIEWER: Now if I can just get to about your personal experience. I mean you first of all went to a civil court didn’t you? And you were turned away can you tell us what happened?
ALY: Well when I when I was first abused by my first husband I actually went and sought a violence restraining order and was basically talked out of it by the judge at the courts who told me that my traditions and my culture should have ways of dealing with domestic violence and that I really wouldn’t need and wouldn’t want a violence restraining order because it would mean that the police would come to my house and take my husband away. So I left at that point without a violence restraining order, stayed in the marriage. When I did finally get the courage to divorce my husband, as soon as I started talking about divorce he suddenly found a use for religion and brought up that I couldn’t get a civil divorce from him, that I would need to get a Sharia divorce and that he wouldn’t agree to one. So I stayed married to him, though separated for 5 years and it took me 5 years to finally get together the money that I needed and the courage to go through a civil divorce
INTERVIEWER: Did he ever talk when you were talking to him about the abuse did he ever reference his religion or was it only in terms of ‘I will not let you have a divorce’?
ALY: Oh no, it was always he always that was the one use, the one use that he found for his religion. Everything else you know he could make excuses for but the one use that he found for religion was to argue that it was his right.
INTERVIEWER: And did he continue a pattern of abuse throughout that marriage until you left?
ALY: He did until I finally left, there was a pattern of abuse and like I said, I stayed longer than I should have for varying reasons but predominantly because I couldn’t see any other option. And I stayed married after we divorced – after we’d separated – I stayed married for 5 years tethered to him because I didn’t know what my rights were.
INTERVIEWER: Now Adel if you could, if I could bring you in here point, now what Anne is telling us is this kind of gruelling experience 25 years ago what ABC news has been hearing from Muslim women today is that this is still very much occurring at this moment in fact as much as the last few weeks there’ve been women who have been turned away, who have intervention orders in their hands who Imams have suggested going back to their husbands. How can we explain this?
SALMAN: I think there are a number of factors at play here. First of all it should be made very clear that it is absolutely a woman’s right to seek a divorce and she doesn’t necessarily actually have to be a victim of domestic violence to seek a divorce. And the other point that’s really important to emphasise is that Islam does not give a husband the right to control his wife. That’s a complete misunderstanding of the religion and if there are some people who have that that understanding, well then their misguided. I think in in relation to some of the difficulties that were reported In the article which were by the way was a very in depth article and obviously there was a lot of research involved, a lot of it is to do with culture and cultural understanding and also the concept that the family unit in Islam is sacrosanct and so Imams as leaders in the community, faith leaders will do whatever’s in their power to try and keep the family unit together. It’s not just Imams that have that that view as well. But I think it comes to the point where Imams may not be the best people to engage with when a woman is suffering domestic violence because they may not be able to give the right advice at that time to be able to deal with that issue. At the end of the day it’s really important to note again that a woman is fully entitled to seek a divorce and it shouldn’t be a traumatic process.
INTERVIEWER: Right and you say that there, you know, that it should never be an interpretation of anything in Islam that a man should be able to control his wife yet we’ve heard the you know the president of the council of Imams saying that a that it is a man’s right to tell his wife whether or not she can leave the house without his permission.
SALMAN: I should declare that that I know Shady Alsuleiman someone that I respect immensely and I admire his great work that he does for the Muslim community so I just want to say that you know straight up. In relation to the views that I heard, very difficult for me for me to comment on but I will say reiterate what I’ve just said before, that Islam does not give a husband the right to control his wife. Having said that there needs to be a relation of mutual respect and there may be some you know some norms within the marriage that gives the right to the husband to know what his wife is going, what she’s doing and there should be an accommodation on both parts but clearly, clearly if that is being used to abuse and control the wife, such that she is very unhappy in the marriage, that is a form of abuse.
INTERVIEWER: So what’s, what’s your response as a leader who obviously is very concerned about this kind of behaviour, to the breadth of these reports, to the number of women scholars, councillors, advocates, social workers, survivors who are saying, ‘this is a real problem and not enough is being done’?
SALMAN: Look I would agree with that in principle, I think a lot more needs to be done. There have been steps taken and I think even the article does mention those but there’s a lot more work to be done to address these issues and it’s not acceptable that even one woman goes through a very traumatic process to seek what is her right and so, the whole process needs to be reviewed. The role of the Imams needs to be reviewed, the training given to the Imams and their understanding you know needs to be I think looked at. The Imams, a lot of them are very sincere, they want to do what’s best by all parties and I think we just need to provide more support but clearly there is something not working in some cases. I should also emphasise that many divorce cases go through seamlessly, Islamic divorces, but we’re talking here about a minority, but even one is too many
INTERVIEWER: Yes, Darren.
DARREN SAUNDERS, UNSW SCHOOL OF MEDICAL SCIENCES: I think it’s, sort of interesting in reading your report and in listening to the discussion around this that that there’s kind of this repeating pattern of things that happen across not just religion but power structures in general in that a lot, in this case you know women are coming up against panels of men judging their case on behalf of them and that sort of inherent power imbalance is always there. And I think while it’s important to make these kind of public statements about you know we don’t we don’t condone it, we don’t accept it, they’re all very welcome and a very welcome progress but we still hear examples of I guess as you said more cultural examples where it’s happening, it’s happening a lot and there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the sort of public face of what’s being said is acceptable and unacceptable and what’s actually going on within families and within individual church communities – oh sorry – religious communities.
INTERVIEWER: How do we explain that Adel that that apparent discrepancy?
SALMAN: I think human nature is part of this, a big part of this actually and it it’s really important to know that and I think Darron made the point this is a cross community issue I mean this is not specifically and I shouldn’t have to say that but often when it comes to issues to do with Muslims and Islam you almost do need to emphasise that this is not unique to the Muslim community. I think culture is a really big part of this. I think cultural understandings really take the form of religious edicts and they’re not they’re cultural understandings. And so they should be challenged and Muslim women, Muslim men, the Muslim community should feel free and able to challenge some of these cultural concepts and if we need to change then so be it, let’s change and let’s all get together and actually make it a plan to do so.
INTERVIEWER: Anne do you think women are free to challenge those cultural ideas in Islam?
SALMAN: --the women I know are and absolutely within my social circle they are absolutely free to do so I think that however there are a Muslim women clearly who are not, who don’t feel they’re able to do that. The other factor here as well Julia is this issue of Islamophobia and the concern that if you air these issues it’s just giving more fodder to people who want to attack Muslims and Islam and so that’s always , that’s always a concern.
INTERVIEWER: Right and that’s a that’s a very real concern I actually want to come back to that because I think it’s of a, it’s an important point to make but Anne if I could just ask you what your view is about whether women’s voices firstly are being heard, and secondly if women are feeling free to express them because the anonymity in our report would suggest there are a few issues.
ALY: Well look I certainly agree with Adel that this is a cultural issue, certainly is a cultural issue what I don’t agree with is that it’s human nature. It’s not human nature at all. I think that the issue runs deep, and it starts off with the birth of a of a girl child and this idea that a young woman’s value is only measureable by the kind of partner, the kind of husband that she can attract. And these cultural ideas run deep within and across – not just Muslim communities – but those ethnic communities that make up predominantly Muslim communities that a woman’s worth that she’s not complete unless she’s married and I think that’s what kind of underlies this idea that the that that Imams will do anything to keep a family unit together. I’ve had one Imam brag to me that he’s got a 97% success rate in keeping relationships together regardless of whether they are happy marriages, abusive marriages, you know and I think there needs to be a huge culture shift here. It’s not enough to just speak out against domestic violence and have awareness of this there actually needs to be a cultural change in and a shift around attitudes towards women. Secondly I do think that women are afraid to speak out. They’re afraid to speak out for a number of reasons. You get ostracised from your community. And let me make it clear it’s not just the men and the Imams who are doing this. There are also Muslim women and women’s groups – it’s the mothers and the aunties and the sisters in law who are all saying to these women “be patient, stay with your husband, for the benefit of the children, for the good of the children, stay with him.” So it is hugely cultural and it is very very complex. They’re afraid to speak out because of backlash from the community and yes, I do agree that they are also afraid to speak out because of backlash from the broader Australian community towards Muslims. But we cannot keep reducing everything to Islamophobia and that preventing us from having the kinds of conversations that we need to have.
INTERVIEWER: Right it and there is a lot of evidence that there are people are cautious, Anikka, because of all the heat around public debates around it around what is to be Muslim in Australia and yet a lot of the women that we spoke to said that that ends up meaning that they have to be silent.
ANIKA SMETHURST: And I think that’s the most frustrating part of this argument is in other cultures we’ve made, you know, in Australia we’ve made this huge jump forward with domestic violence, we talk about it now it it’s something that’s not sort of just, “they’re having a domestic down the road” it’s something that’s really coming into the light and to think that people hide it, now hide behind culture this fear that you know Islamophobia might, you know, this might play into Islamophobia. But on the flip side of that the idea that you know we go “it’s their culture” and we’re too scared and we pussyfoot around these issues if these issues were happening and some of the stories that you wrote about that you know a woman going back a year later and they didn’t remember the case or you know they’ve lost the papers, if this was happening in a court, if this was happening to you know the Christian family down the road we’d speak out about it and we can’t sort of just hide behind it because it’s somebody else’s culture. This is happening in Australia.
ALY: Yeah and can I just say also I think that when we do talk about domestic violence, in the broader conversation about domestic violence, we need to be inclusive and we need to be inclusive of the voices of Muslim women who are survivors of domestic violence or who may be, who need a platform, who deserve a platform to talk about those as well. So rather than marginalising it as a conversation that only needs to be had within the context of being Muslim, let’s bring it into the broader conversation and talk about domestic violence as it applies to different groups as well.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think we avoid this question of you know Islamophobia when it comes to this and is there any merit to the idea, which is often put, that the left is too timid about this because they’re concerned about Islamophobia they won’t interrogate some views in Muslim community about women and that the right on the other hand is, to put it very crudely, is much more aggressive on that question.
SAUNDERS: I think I mean I think those concerns are real, but I think what we’re seeing here is a is a broader example which we see in all kinds of institutions you know the Catholic church has been grappling with this for a long time over child abuse, is a case of putting institutional reputation ahead of the risk to the individual within that institution. And you know, we see that play out all over the place in all kind of contexts and I think with particularly with something like domestic violence where there’s real physical and emotional and psychological harm going on we need to prevalence or prejudice individual risk over institutional risk so I think that’s possibly a bit of what we’re seeing here, is that people aren’t willing to really open up and very difficult, very difficult discussions about the broader culture within say Islam or within Catholicism or within Scepticism even because they’re too scared about what damage that will do to the “brand” if you like.
INTERVIEWER: What, so Adel I just want to ask you what you think of that and whether and if you can kind of spell out for us what it what it means to be the subject of you know anti Muslim sentiment sometimes and I’ll just give you two examples for you for you to reference. The first is if you look at I’ve looked at so much of the teachings online that are available online in the Australian Muslim community about this. There is massive traffic for a very small Hizb ut-Tahrir discussion about whether or not you can physically discipline your wife but when we have when you have a group of Australia’s most prominent Muslim leaders putting together a video to say we condemn it we appall it where this is not appropriate very few people have actually watched that if you compare it so that’s one thing you’re dealing with. Another would be will I go back to Lukemba today and speaking to the Muslim Women’s Association and even just talking to them about the graffiti that happens on their building all the time with names that I could never mention on this show. The pornography that gets shoved under their doors just this week have kind of a sense of almost physical menace to be walking along the street. Can you explain to us you know how what it means to kind of have this debate in that climate?
SALMAN: Well I think you’ve summarised it very well using those two different examples Julia. I mean, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment and it’s and it’s not just limited to hate speech it’s actually physical violence and intimidation is real and sadly the main victims, the majority victims are women. Women bear the brunt of Islamophobia and it’s not just about damage to the brand, I agree with what Darron is saying by large but you’re it actually does have a human context. The people who suffer are human beings and their rights are not being respected. I think the issue of confronting this issue frankly and honestly is one thing and I think it has to happen. I think it’s about timing. I think now is the time where we need to discuss this openly as a community. But I look at other examples in even in Australia’s modern history where issues that were not discussed openly are now being discussed openly. So this is a normal progression and I think the Muslim community is now ready to have the conversation people need to be challenged, some of the views need to be challenged and we need to collectively agree that these types of concepts, these types of ideas are no longer acceptable. But it shouldn’t be in the context that Islam oppresses women, Islam is misogynistic, Islam is this that and the other. I think it should be more about what can we do to improve some of the processes that we currently have within the community to respect the rights of women.
INTERVIEWER: And what can be done as well I mean about the growing anger of Muslim women within these communities that there is an inaction and lack of urgency surrounding this?
SALMAN: Well I think we have to acknowledge it and accept it at face value. Clearly there are a lot of women out there who are very frustrated, even within my own social circle. Some of the stories that were discussed in the article are familiar. We know of cases where that has been that has been the issue and women have been frustrated in pursuing what is their right and that is to seek a divorce. So clearly women are frustrated by large women are very angry that these issues are still being experienced by their peers and there is a real desire to see change and I think that’s very important and I really want to emphasise that. There is a desire within the community to see change.
INTERVIEWER: Anne what kind of change do you think is required?
ALY: I think there needs to be more than just talk and I think we need to more do more than just acknowledge that these stories are out there. We need to start listening, listening to the real lived experiences of women who are forced to stay married to men who are abusive towards them because they cannot have access to a divorce. This is not just an ideological thing that’s going on, these are real lives and real things that are happening, real events that are happening today. So I think that it needs to go beyond just acknowledging we need to listen and the change is urgent. Like I said this happened to me 25 years ago, and it’s still happening? The change is really urgent, there needs to be a cultural shift, a change in attitude a change in like there was one there was a story in the report of the young girl – the young woman I'm sorry – who asked for a pre-nup or to be to be put in the pre-nup conditions of a divorce and what and the Imam tried to talk her out of that. Education with young women and girls who are and couples about what their rights are and perhaps installing right now a process by which, that gets written into the marriage agreement so that it makes it easier in the end.
INTERVIEWER: What about having the presence of women on some of these panels that decide on the religious divorce?
ALY: Well are the women going to have a say in the decision making? It’s Still, it doesn’t get to the actual substantive issue here which is women are being asked to produce evidence of violence in order to justify their right to leave a man who is abusing them. That, at its very core, is wrong. So I don’t think having a woman on, well I think it’ll make a difference and it certainly has made a difference in some cases and there is an example in the report of where that’s made a difference, but it really needs to be about educating women about their rights, an attitudinal change among the Imams and among men and education. Education about how – what the rights are – but I’m sorry, but also a change in the process.
INTERVIEWER: Anne thank you so much for sharing your story with us today we really appreciate it and Adel we know this is an uncomfortable and it’s a difficult situation but you’ve decide it’s really important to have a frank and open one we appreciate that also. Thank you both.
SALMAN: Thank you, thank you very much.
ALY: Thanks Julia.