|Written by Erin Pizzey
|Monday, April 16, 2007 12:17 AM
Three years ago I had a phone call while I was shopping at Tesco. A disembodied voice said that a family in Bahrain had decided to create a shelter for battered women and their children and would I like to come and open it. The centre was being created in honor of a much loved woman called Aisha Yateem who recently died and had during her life time completely changed the lives of many Bahraini women. The voice belonged to her daughter-in-law Shirley Yateem who was now one of the driving forces into getting a shelter open in Bahrain because she was so aware of the need for a safe place for women not only in her country but also across the Arab world. The money she explained would be provided by Aisha’s husband Hussain, in memory of his wife’s life-time devotion to the cause of women. I was excited and intrigued by the invitation but puzzled because as far as I knew the Qu’ran, the sacred book which circumscribed the lives of all Muslims advocated wife-beating and I would be speaking against wife beaters. I told Shirley I would be honored to accept her invitation and hurried home to do some research.
I found the ‘Holy’ Qu’ran (Ali Abdullah–Yusuf) in Twickenham Library and lugged it home. This version demands that a husband must first reason with his wife if she is difficult, then withdraw sexual favors if she continues to be recalcitrant, and if she persists he can ‘beat her lightly.’ However when I googled the subject I was introduced to the ‘Noble’ Qu’ran which gives the first two options but then states quite baldly that a husband can ‘beat his wife.’ There were also several video clips on the internet where Imams (religious leaders) made it quite clear that women could and should be beaten for a variety of reasons but best summed up as ‘neshooz’ – wicked acts.
Various Muslim friends I consulted explained that there were many interpretations and that ‘beating’ could be reduced to a symbolic tap with a handkerchief or a swipe with a small natural bundle of twigs used for brushing teeth called a ‘miswak.’ I remembered the old English law that a woman could be beaten with a stick ‘no bigger than a man’s thumb,’ but at least it wasn’t in the bible. However I was comforted by the life of Mohammed their prophet. He never advocated wife beating. Indeed he was an exemplary man. His first wife was older than he was and he worked for her. He also did household chores and did his own washing and mending and all Muslim men are expected to follow his example. I finished my research with the knowledge that the Qu’ran also says that Eve was born independently of Adam. She is not cast out of the Garden of Eden and she is not cursed by pain in childbirth. In fact women have a far higher status in the Qu’ran than they do in the Old Testament. By now I was hooked and I waited impatiently for the visit to Bahrain to come about.
The Queen of Bahrain, Shaikha Sabeeka Al Khalifa, would be the guest of honor at the opening of the “Aisha Yateem Family Counseling and Shelter” and I was delighted that Her Majesty who is probably one of the most prominent supporters of women’s rights in the Arab world was going to give us her blessing. Bitterly I remembered that thirty-six years ago in Chiswick, I had four tiny rooms packed out with desperate women and children sleeping on the floors and against the walls. Thank goodness the women of Bahrain would have this magnificent beautifully built shelter and the support of the Royal family of Bahrain.
I made my speech in front of an audience of some five hundred women under a massive tent strewn with carpets. An anonymous Bahraini woman spoke described the years of beating and abuse she faced unable to find anywhere to turn until she found the centre. Many women in the audience were in tears. This was the first time family violence had been openly discussed in Bahrain.
When I was making my speech I was struck by the variety of clothing. Many were wearing beautiful flowing robes but some wore the latest designer fashion. There were no cleavages and no dresses above the knees. It reminded me of the innocence of my teenage years in the fifties and elegance amongst women that I feel has been lost in the Western world.
The Queen was taken on a tour of the building which is surrounded by an enormous wall and has a guard station beside the imposing front gates Before she went into the building she took my hands in hers and thanked me for coming to Bahrain, I could see she had been deeply moved. I told her how grateful I was on behalf of all women in Bahrain for her support and that we would need it in the coming years.
The centre is a gentle fortress and once inside I was introduced to the Architect and I congratulated her upon her sensitive design. Apart from the councilling room and the conference rooms there is a separate wing for the shelter. I bounced on one of the well sprung beds and admired the well appointed kitchen/ sitting room. Outside the back door there is a huge space for the children to play and sufficient space for the shelter to expand. The plan is for there to be several small shops that will sell a variety of products in order to make the shelter financially self sufficient and also supply training in retail for the women using the shelter. One of my favorite members of the Yateem family Mrs. Shaikha Yateem donated a magnificent computer room and library to the centre. This will enable some of the women and the older children learn IT skills. I went back to my hotel that night firmly believing that this centre will be the first of many that will stretch across the Arab Emirates and beyond.
The next day we held a press conference. The room in the centre was packed with women journalists and one very brave man. I described the situation in England and told them about the cases I had worked on. The major problem, the journalists explained that exists in countries like Bahrain is that there is no civil law therefore no ‘family law.’ The law in Bahrain is Sharia law which is the religious law taken directly from the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran allows men to take four wives which create great problems for women and their children particularly when the man cannot afford to support more than one family. In fact the man may only take another wife with the permission of his first wife but in practice he rarely asks. Under Sharia law men automatically get custody of the children after the ‘tender’ years, and even though divorce is permitted in the Qu’ran, unless the wife is educated and knows that she must stipulate that she has the right to divorce her husband in her marriage contract, he can refuse her a divorce – she has no right to refuse him.
For two days I gave seminars each one lasting for three and a half hours. They would have lasted longer had I not been exhausted. In the front row both days sat Police women. They talked about the difficulty they had getting their fellow policemen to take the subject of wife beating seriously. I told them I had the same problem in England but now our police force was our front line of our defence against domestic violence. There were women from all the agencies in the country. Bahrain is probably the most liberal of all the Kingdoms in the Arab Emirates. They have free medicine, free education, almost a hundred percent literacy and a driving ambition to raise the quality of the lives of everyone that lives in their Kingdom.
For light relief Shirley took me to several lunches with her Bahraini friends. They all seem to have green fingers and make beautiful gardens out of sand. We talked about clothing and both the husbands and the wives agreed that while some women wish to be fully hidden behind their Abayas and Hijabs, many in Bahrain wear Western clothes but when they drive across the causeway into Saudi Arabia they all have to muffle up. I also went to a fund raising lunch given by the ‘Inner Wheel’ the women’s arm of the Rotary club where after the meal (women only) the guests rose to their feet (Shirley included), and danced the most beautiful sensual dances with each other. There is a huge amount of very obvious warmth and affection between the women I met probably because family life is alive and vibrant in Muslim communities.
Ebtisam Khamiss and Farida Ghulum from the centre took me to visit Dr. Fatima Balooshi who is the Minister of Social Development in order to discuss housing and we left with her promise that she would look into it. I also spent time with Fadheela Al-Mahroos who wrote one of the first papers on child abuse in Bahrain. I read to her an account given by Mark Rosenthal to a Domestic Violence Conference at York College. The whole room listened while I read his words. This was the violence his mother used against his gentle father. The audience were stunned and deeply moved. She told me that she can take an abused child into the hospital but she cannot stop the parents removing the child the next day. The stumbling block for women is that unless they can insist on reforming the Qu’aranic law they cannot attain the rights and the responsibilities they need to attain an equal place beside men. At present the Imams who are in powerful in Bahrain insist that the Qu’ran provides a perfect model for present day life and society.
I left Bahrain aware of the great difficulties facing the brave and dedicated women who will run this unique shelter. Because it is the first of its kind in the Arab world they will experience the hot breath of ignorance and prejudice but it is a magnificent beginning.
Copyright © 2007 Erin Pizzey, All Rights Reserved
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