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All in the Family?

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Message Jayne Stahl
Just in time for the digitally remastered version of the 1975 Lena Wertmuller classic "Swept Away," starring Giancarlo Giannini, an Italian to die for, in a rare appearance on You Tube, Mufti of Egypt Sheik Ali Gum'a, speaks openly about how the Quran allows wife beating in Muslim countries. In the You Tube segue, taken from the May 26th broadcast of Al-Risali TV out of Saudi Arabia, the Sheik contends that, while Allah "permitted wife beating" as a way to preserve the family, attitudes towards the controversial practice depend largely on "the cultural status of women."

While noting that different societies may be permitted to have different worldviews, Ali Gum'a says that, bottom line, Allah gives thumbs up to those husbands who find it expedient to beat their wives, suggesting, too, that wife-beating may be a way to "preserve the stability of the family." This is very disturbing to women of our culture or, for that matter, to women of any culture who don't like bring hit. Even more distressing is the kind of linguistic latitude the Egyptian leader affords himself when distinguishing between "aggression towards women," which he insists is proscribed by Islam, and wife battery, which he says is permissible. One can only marvel at this nuanced moral relativism given the staunch absolutism of Islam.

Importantly,Ali Gum'a is not suggesting that Islam recommends, or exhorts one to practice, domestic violence on women, only that it is permissible under Islamic law. Similarly, one may point to the biblical maxim, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" to argue that Christianity sanctions physical abuse of children. It would seem that the Sheik, too, is saying that it might be beneficial for the health of the patriarch if the father took rod to mother.

What is intriguing , as well as disconcerting, is his idea that "in some cultures women are not averse to beating," but instead see the use of physical force as an affirmation of "masculinity," as well as as a kind of control they desire. Which brings us back to Lena Wertmuller, and "Swept Away" a movie in which an assertive, powerful woman finds herself drawn to machismo. Is it something in his aftershave that makes the Wertmuller character long to be overpowered, or is it merely a surplus of estrogen? What would Islam have to say about hitting on a first date? Can one strike a concubine, or is the sanctuary of matrimony a prerequisite? And, if it were possible to travel through time, back to the days of Petronius, would one find Julius Caesar beating Cleopatra, or would he have to marry her first?

There are those who would argue that it's unthinkable for Wertmuller's Giannini to strike his woman in an effort to assert his familial control. Ostensibly, political correctness, in these matters, dates back to the Puritans not the Romans. To understand the Romans, we must remember that "paterfamilias" is not merely a free male citizen, but the head of a Roman family, the father. The difference, of course, is that the Roman gods didn't sanction wife beating, and their heirs, the Catholics, likewise disavow physical abuse in the name of providing for a stable family. When comparing how notions of family morph from Cairo to Rome, consider, too, the irony in that the term "la famiglia" is often synonymous with the mob.

One of the big problems we, in the west, have when talking about Islam is that we confuse it with Islamofascism, at least some folks in Washington, D.C. do. In point of fact, it would be outrageous to assert that Mussolini could find permission to smack Madame Mussolini in the New Testament, but that doesn't mean he didn't slap her. What disturbs most is that a religious credo, regardless of whose credo it is, would say that spousal abuse is ever accceptable. But, more contemptible still is an egregious disinterest in learning about other cultures, as well as fundamental differences in world views. Tolerance isn't born in a test tube. Western leaders make a career out of ignorance of anything eastern, and this is a dangerous policy. We have a president who brags about never reading newspapers; can you just see him reading the Quran? Is this what I'm suggesting; if that's what it takes to solve the problem of clashing ideologies, and to gain greater understanding, yes.

While it's wrenching to think that Allah approves, under any circumstances the striking of a wife by her husband, textbook Christianity prohibits the practice, but that doesn't prevent basic human cruelty from finding its way into our homes. Like it or not, as crime statistics show, what we find in our holy books, more often than not, has little, if anything, to do with what we practice. Our foreign policy, over the past five years, is living proof that when God said "Vengeance is mine" he wasn't talking to President Bush. Maybe the world needs a break from organized religion, or maybe we need to think in larger terms about how to preserve the "stability" not only of the nuclear, but of the human family.

(this article first appeared on The Huffington Post)
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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