Juliane Hammer, Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts against Domestic Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Juliane Hammer (JH): It was early 2009 and US Muslim communities were shocked into action by the murder of Aasiya Zubair, killed by her husband in a domestic violence (DV) crime that followed years of domestic abuse and her filing for divorce. Inspired by Muslim feminist scholars and activists, and frustrated by the silence from most American Muslim leaders on domestic violence in Muslim communities, I wanted to bring together a study of grassroots work against domestic abuse in US Muslim communities with textual sources and interpretations that have made at least some of that work possible, and vice versa. The media coverage of Aasiya’s murder and its aftermath also brought home the politics of gendered anti-Muslim hostility and the struggles of Muslim activists to shift American Muslim communal narratives and representations. The book is based on six years of ethnographic research among Muslim DV advocates and working through countless textual sources which are interwoven in the text. It was a long and painful process to write this book, and it is, because of the topic, a challenging read.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JH: Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in American society and it is almost entirely hidden from public view: no one wants to talk about it. American Muslim communities are no exception, except that their targeting as not-American, as not belonging, through racist and exclusionary representations as uniquely misogynist and oppressive of women, makes their individual and communal efforts to raise awareness of and put an end to DV even more challenging. The book brings together the stories, motivations, and experiences of Muslims who work in three broad areas: raising awareness of DV in Muslim communities, providing services to victims and survivors, and educating mainstream providers, advocates, and law enforcement on the specific needs and dynamics of Muslim DV victims and their families. Much of this work takes place outside of the public view.
I approached the project from my own position as a Muslim feminist who rejects all forms of gender-based violence and sees patriarchy as one of its sources. I was deeply challenged by some advocates’ arguments against domestic violence being rooted in what I call in the book “protective patriarchy.” Protective or benevolent patriarchy is a powerful tool in the fight against DV and my struggle with it brought to the fore broader questions of the ethics of scholarship and the place of responsible critique.
I also explore and analyze the religious interpretations of texts such as the Qur’an and the Sunna in the service of unequivocally rejecting domestic abuse in all its forms. In creating a religious framework for ending DV, the advocates have to wrestle with issues of religious authority and authenticity, and ultimately with gender, patriarchy, and Islam as powerful normative constructions that operate in Muslim contexts. The book engages with academic literature on DV in Muslim contexts (which is a relatively small body of work) but also looks more broadly at anti-domestic violence efforts in relation to the state, the feminist movement, and the efforts in other religious communities and interfaith efforts against gender-based violence. It represents American Muslims as active participants in US civil society and in political and social transformation, thereby challenging notions of Muslims as not fully belonging in the United States.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not emphasize that throughout the book I participate in and further existing conversation with the work of Muslim feminist scholars and activists who have inspired and nurtured my own commitments to gender justice. I see the book as part of a collective effort that honors, recognizes, and engages those who laid the foundations for Muslim work for gender justice.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JH: Much of my work has focused on the nexus between gender discourses and Muslim thought and practice, with a decided focus on how Muslim (women) activists produce knowledge and change society. I have explored Muslim debates about woman-led prayer as part of a larger conversation about gender justice through women’s leadership, scholarship, media representations, and embodied forms of activism. I have also researched gendered forms of anti-Muslim hostility at the intersection of racism and religious othering. This book brings together and furthers these scholarly interests by embedding Muslim efforts against domestic violence in broader societal dynamics, Muslim engagements with the state and interfaith movements, and in broader efforts for gender justice in Muslim communities and societies, as well. This book takes my feminist Muslim commitments as a scholar-activist to not only analyze but also change society further than previous work and I am very proud of this move, especially because my discipline of religious studies is still deeply divided about the validity of activism-orientated work.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JH: I am sincerely hoping for a wide and diverse readership—not for my sake, but for the sake of highlighting and acknowledging the hard work of Muslim anti-DV advocates who work largely in the shadows and at great personal cost. I would like to see the work engaging scholars as well as activists and of course scholar-activists who are interested in the study of contemporary Muslims, gender and sexuality studies, feminist work against gender-based violence, social justice and anti-racist scholarship. My goal was to write accessibly, clear, and without technical jargon, so that the book can be read by students, scholars, journalists, and the advocates themselves. And I hope that the book will generate a conversation, raise awareness, and connect different groups of people for the same goal that I have: to help end domestic abuse in all its forms.
I also hope that the book might help facilitate academic conversations about the purpose of our work, the power of narrative, and the ethics of critical scholarship. It is an example of engaged, interdisciplinary, and mixed-methodology academic writing that could engender broader conversations about disciplinary cannons and boundaries, as well as inspire cooperation in and beyond the academy.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JH: Now that Peaceful Families is published, I am working on a number of projects, including a book project on patriarchal notions of Islam with a focus on gender and sexuality. This book will analyze projects of defining and stabilizing notions of “Islam” in contemporary Muslim contexts as depending on patriarchal notions of gender, marriage, and sexuality, and thereby create an archive of patriarchal Muslim methodologies, debates, and arguments. In addition, I am interested in exploring the place of religion in intersectional frameworks for Muslim activism and the possibilities of intersectional solidarity for social justice in the United States and beyond. I am thinking through the connection between (Muslim) feminist and LGBTQI movements for inclusion, recognition, and the right to love. Somewhere along the way, I would like to help formulate a justice-oriented and harm-avoiding Muslim feminist sexual ethic that links struggles for gender justice with those for acceptance of difference and inclusion.
Excerpt from the book (pp. 10-13)
An Ethic of Non-Abuse
In my years of working with Muslim advocates I often asked why they engage in this work. The same way they wanted to know what compelled me to write this book, I was interested in their motivations for dedicating much of their energy, passion, and time to this difficult work. I had approached the project with the assumption that Muslim advocates would point me to scriptural and exegetical resources in order to explain how Islam/the Qur’an is opposed to domestic abuse. And they often did point me to such resources, but the process whereby they constructed them as authoritative tools in their fight against DV seemed to never have started in the places where the texts dwell. Instead, they spoke of witnessing and/or experiencing abuse and instinctually recoiling from it as something deeply unethical and morally wrong. In other words, their own experiences and their affective responses to them lead to their activism. I eventually concluded that the activists possessed what I have come to call an ethic of non-abuse, which preceded their search for scriptural and thus divine support for their cause.
This ethic of non-abuse prioritizes change through praxis over change through discursive engagement. It is an ethic that is non-negotiable as a foundation, even though their notions of what constitutes non-abuse, which is more than the absence of violence, are more multivalent and complex. My formulation of this ethic of non-abuse also comes from a longer trajectory in my own research practice. In much of my work on contemporary Muslim debates (and practices) regarding gender roles and gender justice, the greatest challenge has been to avoid the creation of a dichotomy between ideas of a “classical Islamic tradition” and its contemporary iterations. Similarly, there is an inherent tension in academic literature on American Muslims that tends to measure American Islam (if there is such a thing) against an assumed authentic Islam, typically in Muslim-majority societies. In both cases, what is practiced and discursively formulated in any given temporal or geographical context is measured against a preexisting model “Islam.” It is also almost always found to be lacking in such comparisons.
This is especially true for projects that are characterized as reform oriented, which implies a movement for change. Such projects of change are predicated on a critique of the existing situation and explanations for the direction of desired change. The broadest and most powerful frame for considering such movements has been the debate about “Islam and modernity.” It looms large in studies of Muslim reform movements and is deeply influenced by Eurocentric (and colonial) models of development and progress.
Simultaneously, the reference to a preexisting Islam, while itself a product of the nineteenth century, has been used extensively as a tool in internal Muslim critique and rejection of reform projects as inauthentic, pro-colonial, and at times anti-Islam. This is especially evident in Muslim debates about gender equality and more specifically in feminist projects. Such projects, until now, have been analyzed in terms of their formulation of religious discourses that then were applied to specific contexts, in a linear flow from theory to practice, from discursive production to its application. And while practice and application have been recognized to have an impact on discursive formations, they have rarely been recognized as constitutive elements in a cycle where practice impacts discourse, which impacts practice.
In this book, I trace the practice of an ethic of non-abuse as the first entry point into this cycle, which then gets discursively supported in various ways. In other words, the religious framework, formulated through textual interpretation and negotiations of religious authority that I set out to study in this book, turned out to be secondary to anti–domestic violence work, that is, practice in the contexts I studied. The agents of this work, advocates, service providers, and even religious leaders, recognized the need for discursive religious support for their work after they committed themselves to addressing domestic violence in Muslim families. Often, the search for a stable Islamic framework was prompted by a deep cognitive dissonance between the activists’ ethical frames and the disturbing realities of domestic violence.
In the process, the “Islamic tradition” or “Islam” is discursively constructed as relatively static and constant, which in turns renders Islam authoritative. Formulations such as “Islam says,” “according to Islam,” and “in Islam” serve to powerfully and authoritatively present the central ethic of non-abuse as preexisting and thus not up for negotiation. As I explore the specific context of anti-DV work in U.S. Muslim communities, I see broader implications for research on contemporary Muslim engagement with and construction of “tradition.” Rather than advocating a deconstruction of tradition/Islam, I am interested in the continued production of the content of this tradition.
Gender Justice and Feminism
My scholarship and activism have long been concerned with gender justice. Not only have I studied Muslim women scholars and activists who may or may not self-identify as feminists, but they share with me as a common goal their commitment to gender justice. Amina Wadud, one of the leading figures in this gender justice project, has formulated it as follows:
The gender jihad is the struggle to establish gender justice in Muslim thought and praxis. At its simplest level, gender justice is gender mainstreaming—the inclusion of women in all aspects of Muslim practice, performance, policy construction, and in both political and religious leadership.
Like Wadud and many others, including Asma Barlas, Kecia Ali, Aysha Hidayatullah, Ayesha Chaudhry, and Sa’diyya Shaikh, I envision a world in which women do not experience gender-based violence in its many forms but are instead recognized as fully human. Or as a T-shirt my daughter likes to wear puts it: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” This commitment to a project to achieve gender justice and the more specific project to end domestic violence in Muslim families are intrinsically linked.
Several of the leading Muslim intellectuals and activists who have dedicated their lives to gender justice projects have also written about domestic violence and were, from the very beginning, my interlocutors and my community in this endeavor. I have developed my analysis in deep and sustained conversation with many of them and would insist on this book as a dynamic and dialogical project that aims to further conversation, deepen understanding, and, yes, change the world. These interlocutors, like Mohja Kahf, were influential in my decision to write this book. Their analysis of textual sources, most centrally the Qur’an, is significant for my analysis, even where I argue that in the realm of anti-DV work the ethic of non-abuse precedes the engagement with foundational Islamic texts. Where such textual engagement does appear, it is usually not foregrounding the work of “feminist” scholars, so I need to make sure to acknowledge the significance of feminist scholarship (and sisterhood) for my own work in this chapter. It will become clearer that such feminist scholarship and activism also run under the surface of Muslim DV work, albeit rarely directly acknowledged.
Here, I present foundational Muslim feminist analysis and (re)interpretation of a specific verse in the Qur’an, 4:34. The verse has been the subject of a substantial body of literature, especially produced by contemporary Muslim scholars and leaders, and it will reappear frequently in the pages of this book. I want to identify my own framework for addressing Qur’anic interpretation by placing my discussion of 4:34 in the context of Muslim women scholars and their struggle with arriving at a gender-just interpretation of the verse.