In Malawi, the conflict between religion and human rights is ongoing. Despite awareness by several human rights non-governmental organizations, it is distressing to note that many Muslim men are committing different atrocities in the name of religion.
Despite being the country’s second foremost religion after Christianity, issues affecting Muslim women are rarely discussed. Muslim women are facing many problems but fail to report to the appropriate institutions in fear of losing their marriages. It has landed them in an ocean of troubles, but addressing cultural taboos is more complex than these women simply not realizing their rights.
This silence is not exclusive to Muslim women. Women of all religions face pressure in Malawi’s male-dominated society to conform to their husbands’ wishes. However, the Muslim practice of polygamy, where husbands can marry up to four wives according to the teachings of Islam, has muffled their voices even further as some do it ignorantly.
Some of the illegitimate consequences of this misunderstanding are many. Women are now expected to unconditionally obey their husbands. Material support is a favour delivered by the husbands and not a duty. The voices of women are considered prohibited to be heard. Women have to cook. They have to be fatalistically patient with physical and psychological abuse. Women cannot work and that they are not only half the worth of men but they are in fact half human.
And according to some Sheikhs, stick to that religious beliefs are more important than human rights.
“Religious beliefs are better than human rights.”
This is the voice of Sheikh Muhammad Uthman, an Islamic marriage counsellor in Malawi.
“Some of the human rights are not compliant with humanity,” he says. “For example how the right of dressing is – women just walking naked.”
However, in Muslim community, it is too often used to excuse human rights abuses in the name of religion , although some are contrary with the teachings of Islam itself because Islam put men and women at equal standards although not identical.
Gender-based violence is likely common. Cheating, not getting tested, leaving home without food, and refusing to use a condom are some of the things that put their lives on hold. Sadly, women often say their religious beliefs do not allow them to address these issues in public, for fear they may end up damaging the image of the religion or lose their marriages.
“We Muslim women in Malawi are facing a lot of problems. Our husbands do not want to send us to school and instead they take another educated woman in front of us and sometimes they can marry the woman without our consultation and when we ask, they say our religion allows polygamy,” says one of these women, who wanted to be identified as simply Shakeerad.
Shakeerad is a Muslim convert who loves Islam very much but sadly, she is denied the opportunity to learn about her religion.
She also says some men do not want to go for HIV/AIDS testing. Instead, he asks his wife to go with the belief that if she found to be negative, then he is also negative. Worse still, some of them refuse to use a condom, even when their wives are suspicious of extra-marital affairs.
Sadly, she can not voice out her problems as in fear losing her marriage and damaging the image of Islam.
“When we try to address these problems in our community, they say it is sensitive and exposing them to the public will just damage the image of our religion and we may end up losing our marriages. Therefore, as women who have kids, we just accept everything. But we know it is bad for us,” she says.
However, looking about to the teachings of Islam itself, there is nowhere written that women should just be ill-treated and stay quite without taking any action. The Quran even goes further to give the women a mandate that they can divorce a bad and cruel husband by even seeking the court’s intervention.
Unfortunately, due to lack of civic education and that some women are illiterate they do not realize this and they are just brainwashed with what their husbands say.
Women can still stand on their own and at the same time respects her religion beliefs. Say, for example, if she had given an opportunity to go to school and to work, she can be a good and strong woman who can as well contribute to the growth of the Islam in the Country by participating in decision making and so on.
“These can be true, as Muslims we need to find a forum to address these, not on the media. The other thing is that those women who disclose the kind of issues must know that it is against Islamic teachings to disclose to the public that her husband refuses to use a condom. Counselling through sheikhs is the best way,” confirms Sheikh Dinar Chabulika of Islamic Information.
Interestingly, this is what the woman said because some of the people who do such atrocities are Sheikhs themselves who are supposed be example–although they cannot all be trustworthy.
“Do you think all Sheikhs can be trustworthy?” asked Chabulika.
These women have their own organization, Muslim Women Organisation (MWO) but it faces a lot of problems that it has now stayed over 24 years since its formation without an office and there is not enough support from men, which just shows that women are regarded as ‘the cursed’ in the Muslim community.
However, Fatima Ndaila the Organization’s chairlady, once told Malawi Muslims Official Website that many women are being abused and punished because there is a conclusion that a man is a head of family. She also expressed a worry that almost half of Muslim men believe that women are the ones who bring HIV/AIDS.
“It is sad to note that over half of Muslim brothers in Malawi think that only women are the ones who bring HIV/AIDS in their homes,” she says.
“The mentality of considering husbands as heads of the family, I think is also what is killing us women.”
Sister Ndaila gave further examples on how other Muslim men react when they receive messages on HIV/AIDS.
“I remember a certain day when other men walked out of the meeting after Musanet introduced the topic of polygamy. It was not that women were against it but we were trying to discuss some areas that are not good. They (husbands) stormed out without further attending the meeting. Now, with that, do you think we work together?” she asks.
Ndaila says solutions in this often-restrictive community are difficult to come by.
“The solution is with ourselves, we have to use our common sense by realizing whether what we are doing is right or wrong,” she says.
Human rights activist, Martin Munthali, Malawi Carer deputy executive director says that solutions cannot be framed around religion, but as human rights abuses.
“Sometimes we hear such cases. Women are victims of gender-based violence because other people take a woman as a property. Therefore, when they come to report such cases, we do not emphasize on religion but we look at human rights and law,” he says.
“We also know that other types of marriages like customs, give a man a mandate to marry more than one wife and it is not an offense. However, with this HIV/AIDS pandemic I think is risky because if they fail to manage one wife I do not think they can be able to manage two wives; as a result, other women will be walking around with other men,” he said.
He however pointed out that this is happening because of lack of communication between parties and appealed to all women who are facing these difficulties to go and report to human rights constitutions.
“We encourage them to have to come us openly,” he says, adding that they should not fear that their partner will be taken to court or whatsoever as what they want is to bring them together.
“We do not take people to court because we know that their main aim is that they want peace in their family,” he says.
He advocates “alternative dispute resolution” – informal dispute resolution processes in which the parties meet with a professional third party who helps them resolve their dispute in a way that is less formal and often more consensual than is done in the courts. For example, when there is a conflict in the family, instead of them going to the court, they visit his organization for mediation.
“Moreover, we do not look at the religion side but we counsel them equally so that they should live a happy life as man and a woman,” he says.
Therefore, it could be better if all Muslim leaders, had called for civic education as this is happening because of misunderstanding and ignorance because many Muslims in Malawi are illiterate; hence, it is difficult to get well with scriptures.
And doing so, will ease the task and that one day we will see religious beliefs and human rights working together.
Indeed, true Islam would be good for women if it were ever implemented properly.