We live in a world in which women are the preferred target of different types of violence: physical, sexual, psychological, economic, symbolic and structural, among others. A type of violence we are not talking so much about is spiritual violence. This can be defined as using a person’s spiritual beliefs to harm, manipulate, dominate or control the person.
Spiritual violence includes, but is not limited to: disallowing the person to follow his or her preferred spiritual or religious tradition; forcing a spiritual or religious path or practice on another; belittling or making fun of a person’s spiritual or religious tradition, beliefs or practices; and, using one’s spiritual or religious position, rituals or practices to manipulate or alienate a person.
Social institutions, including religions – and mainstream Islam among them- in their doctrine, practices and frameworks, are now dominated by male entitlement and the idea that men and their privileges have the divine right to lead the religion and decipher the will of God. This male chauvinism based on the belittling of the feminine causes much suffering to women and has proven to be very risky and dangerous to our lives: From forced hijab to honor crimes and genital mutilation, women believers live at risk of experiencing some kind of violence justified by the male chauvinism disguised as religion and some of us will suffer one or several types of abuse in the name of God during our lifetime.
One of the most common passive / aggressive forms of spiritual violence is shunning. The “righteous people” – they can be orthodox, progressive or belonging to any clique – decide what is the correct way to live and understand Islam and are dedicated with virulence to coerce and mistreat those who are “deviant”. The “righteous people,” often just a bunch of hypocrites, decides who’s who and how this who should be, should dress, where they should work and even what race and social class they should be to be “dignified and acceptable.”
Spiritual violence is the origin or can be the complement of different types of violence: The expulsion of a group of women from the Masjid Siraatul Jannah in Johannesburg during the holy month of Ramadan is a good example of this: There was physical violence (shoving ) and emotional abuse (humiliation) based on the idea that “according to the will of God” (masculine opinion) women were forbidden to be there. Spiritual violence manifests itself here as the abuse of power of a so-called-believer against a group of women believers through the manipulation of so-called “religious principles,” although there is nothing in the Qur’an that prohibits women to pray in mosques.
Spiritual violence leaves no visible marks and, unfortunately, it is very normalized in some approaches linked to gender and women in Islam, both at a personal and institutional level. Although it is violent and unfair, it is considered normal to forbid women to pray in mosques or to allow our presence only to treat us like sheep, collected in small rooms or in “barnyards” demarcated with a red band.
There is spiritual violence in secret or unauthorized by the first wife practice of polygamy (or in adultery disguised as polygamy, to speak clearly) “because God allows me as a man”; in coercion of sexual intercourse otherwise “the angels will curse you until Fajr”. There is spiritual violence in blackmailing a woman to cut ties with her family, her culture, her affections and everything that is valuable for her to embrace Islam or to marry a Muslim man and in everything that is said or done to make her feel less deserving of respect and acceptance from God.
Many believers legitimize spiritual violence by supporting the idea that it is normal to force women to wear the veil or impose it on pre-pubescent girls, hypersexualising their bodies as tempting for adult men from a very young age. There is spiritual violence in speaking of women as objects, be they jewels, diamonds, pearls or candy, objects that must remain covered for and available to the will of another. These comparisons, which seem so romantic, conceal a huge hatred for women: Objects, however beautiful, sweet and exclusive they may be, have no power of decision and… they have no soul or rights.
There is spiritual violence every time we defend our particular way of understanding Islam over the defense of human dignity as we have been called to it.
The most cruel thing about spiritual violence is the definitive target harmed at the end of the day: Whether it is exercised against women, children, disabled people, Muslims reverted, or humans of other race, spiritual violence exercised by those who say they believe is an expression of dissatisfaction and hatred against God’s creation. By using God’s name and manipulating the tenets of Its Message to use, control, exploit and alienate others in Its Name, it is God itself and Its Rahma – its Infinite Mercy and Matrix of Compassion – which is abashed and oppressed by male ego.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a specialist in training and community outreach in Gender, Communication and Interculturality. She’s also a learning and social projects designer and a qualitative researcher; an awarded activist for women’s rights who too does independent scholarship in Religion, Gender and Social Discourses. Nomadic writer. A woman with stories and geographies, lover of books, cats and spicy Chai.