Palestinian women and men are livid about the attempts of Mahmoud Habash, a senior Islamic cleric in Palestine, to justify light violence against women.
Habash, who is the supreme Sharia judge in the Palestinian Authority, tried to thread the needle when he said that he opposes violence against women but that it is permissible to use "light" violence. He said that moderate violence is a justified and an acceptable form of “tarbieh”, an Arabic word that combines the concept of education with upbringing.
Habash, who was speaking on Palestine’s official TV channel on December 2, said that "humanity has allowed the use of a controlled amount of violence to counter unusual social phenomena. Violence, in general, is rejected, but the use of a certain level of controlled violence as a punishment is legitimate, both religiously and socially". Habash also said that "I do not imagine that any sane person would humiliate his wife. It is haram [forbidden by religion] for anyone to hit or curse his wife, sister or daughter without a reason. Beating that does not inflict harm and excludes the face, is accepted in rare cases."
Palestinian women’s organisations fought back with a series of statements that decried what Habash said and pointed out the various commitments made by the Palestinian government to end all forms of violence against women and children.
Palestine signed in 2014 the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. The convention is described as an international bill of rights for women, which aims at ensuring the "elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organisations or enterprises".
Furthermore, Palestine signed on July 11, the optional protocol to CEDAW. It requires states to publicise the optional protocol and its procedures, and states that "communications and inquiries under the Optional Protocol will receive publicity which will increase public awareness of CEDAW and the Optional protocol".
Women’s organisations also highlighted that Habash’s statements violate the 2002 Palestinian Basic Law, which forbids gender-based discrimination and calls for the protection of the family and children.
Habash, however, rejected this criticism, insisting in posts on his Facebook account that his justification for a moderate use of violence is based on religious creed, and that no international treaty or agreement supersedes Islamic jurisprudence.
Women’s activists leading the campaign against his statements complained that since opposing Habash, they have been receiving hate mail, and that anonymous Facebook accounts have been created to defend the Islamic cleric and viciously attack the women's organisations, often using obscene language.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is very close to Habash, tried to distance himself from the statements of his confidant by praising Palestinian women saying that they are “smarter and more beautiful than men".
The Palestinian foreign ministry also put out a statement expressing support for Palestinian women and insisting on adherence to the commitments made by Palestine in various international treaties and resolutions.
The clash between progressive women and reactionary religious officials is not new. The fact that a senior Palestinian official attempted to justify violence against women, on state TV and during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign that is aimed at combating this scourge, reflects a weak Palestinian government and a rise in the power of religious leaders who are willing to defy the government and its commitments. Such defiance puts into doubt the seriousness of Palestinian commitments made in the international arena.
It is not enough for President Abbas to attempt to whitewash the words of Habash, even if Abbas owes his life to the former Hamas cleric, who is said to have informed the Palestinian president of a plot against him a decade ago. Abbas must act quickly by not only denouncing the destructive statements of his chief Islamic judge, but also by seriously considering his removal or at least denying him airtime on state TV. This is not the first time that Habash uses Palestinian media to spew his fate. He has a long list of statements that are contrary to the text and the spirit of the Palestinian basic law and Palestine's international commitments.