Is violence the only way in this situation?

I felt out of place in a recent conversation about this story from CNN about two women who beat a Muslim cleric who approached them in public because he felt they were not dressed properly:

He told one of the girls to cover up, the report said.

“She responded by telling me to cover my eyes, which was very insulting to me,” Beheshti said. So he asked her a second time to cover up and also to put a lid on what he felt was verbal abuse.

She hit the man of the cloth, and he hit the ground.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this story. I first saw it posted by a feminist and atheist who was elated that these women had stood up to the cleric. I was too – way to stand up to religious oppression! I gagged when I read the part about our poor, dear Beheshti who was so very insulted that a woman would speak back to him. And to call it verbal abuse!? Fuck you, you deluded, self-important jerk. In another article Beheshti said he was carrying out his religious responsibility by “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and that he would risk attacks by women to continue to do so, despite experiencing “the worst day of my life.” Srsly? You brave, brave man! *facepalm* Bravissima to these women who stood up to him!

And then I read the part about how they beat the cleric so badly that he was in the hospital for three days.

And I thought: Woah! Asshole told you to cover up so you put him in the hospital?

I think that in most if not all situations violence begets violence. However, I know that my longing that all conflicts be solved through non-violent means is idealistic and privileged from being raised in a society where violence is (ostensibly and when not condoned by the government) condemned, where I am protected from war and having to fight for my survival. My viewpoint is privileged because I live in a society in which I have the freedom to speak my mind, to communicate freely, to be educated, to wear what I want to wear, to support myself and have control over my life, to seek legal recourse against those who wrong me.

Women are oppressed, violently attacked and killed on the order of extremist Islamic clerics; perhaps this cleric was of that type. He said he “asked them politely” to cover up, but I have to wonder how “politely” an offended Muslim cleric could and would be when backed by a system that ingrains in him that it’s not only okay, but his duty, to tell women in public to cover themselves. We don’t have the womens’ perspectives. We don’t know if the cleric was screaming at them, or calling for backup from others to violently enforce his orders or to assault the women for their “offense”. We don’t know if they felt threatened and were fighting in self-defense. Were these women responding to years of violence and verbal assault and finally said “Enough!”? Do they have sisters, mothers, aunts, friends who have suffered under extremist religious oppression?

Did the cleric “have it coming” either because of his actions that day or because he is part of a system that ingrains disrespect for women? Is this what feminist revolution looks like in Islamist states?  Is this what women have to do to claim their equality in anti-women cultures?

I don’t like the ravenous responses of my online friends with whom I have spoken about this story. I think in some of our minds these two women are standing up for every Muslim woman who has had acid thrown in her face, the group of young Muslim girls who were forced to die in a burning building because they weren’t properly covered, every woman who has been buried to her neck and stoned to death by a blood-thirsty mob, every rape, every underage or forced marriage, every legal beating of a girl or woman, every honor killing. When these two women said no to the cleric and beat him, do we see their actions as a defense of every Muslim sister who we have read stories about in the papers and felt utterly helpless to assist?

When I asked in conversation whether these women’s actions were just, I was met with silence. I expected to be shouted down for my ignorance, accused of being anti-woman, but the question was evaded (or perhaps found boring and ignored) and commentary turned to hopes that the women wouldn’t suffer retribution for their actions (after all if a community will punish a woman just for not covering her body, what will they do to women who dared to punch a holy man?).

When a woman is able to stand up to her oppressor, that’s a good thing. In a perfect rainbow and butterflies world she will deliver a brilliant and scathing oratory that will rock the man to his core and make him reconsider his views of women and their place in culture. In the real world that we all live in, is it going to take some people getting the shit beat out of them to turn the tide?

Please tell me that there is a better way.

Is violence the only way in this situation?
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459 thoughts on “Is violence the only way in this situation?

  1. 1

    Most of the women in these countries have been made into legal and social non-entities. The society they live in makes every act physical, mental and emotional abuse they suffer their own fault. Rape is almost never a man’s fault; when the courts say otherwise, the charge is essentially vandalism against a man’s property.

    I suspect that there is an awful lot of rage behind those burqas, abayas, niqabs, chadors and other forms of clothing designed to reduce or eliminate a woman’s personhood. It would be very difficult to channel that rage when the social conditioning breaks. Violence is not the only way, but it is definitely the most likely manifestation.

  2. 2

    I remember the day when I lost my innocence on this issue. I cried. I thought humans could overcome all oppression by peaceful means. I was talking to an historian about this and he told me that throughout history all oppression has been overcome by violence. The ruling classes have never surrendered their power without a fight – and they usually have the power of the state supporting them and its mechanisms for violent repression. Even the story of Ghandi, he said, is not the story of the liberation of India. It was the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers being killed by militant subjects that forced them out. He went further to say that to expect the oppressed to not fight is to further oppress them.

  3. 3

    It would be nice if one could peacefully take power but people don’t even listen unless speech gets loud and violent. This is change that has to come from within the society in the manner they see fittest. French revolution, American revolution, etc., were all violent. Social programs in secular/democratic countries are in place, in part, to prevent violent overthrow of the political system. These women are not just willing to push back but they will have to take any consequences. And really how bad can they be considering that just being in a crowd can get you groped, raped by police and “dishonoured” so you family wants to kill you.

    If it makes you feel better, she did a verbal response first and when he didn’t back off, she stepped it up.

  4. 4

    The only way? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly think that there are some situations where, as a last resort, it may be.

    “Anyone who thinks violence never solves anything needs to study history.”

    It should be a nearly last resort, and violence doesn’t always have to end in loss of life, but it’s naive to think we’re anywhere near the point where it is never an option.

  5. 5

    It’s a very gray area. I would say that an extended slur campaign could be far, far more damaging than a right hook. Sometimes, a punch in the jaw is just what the doctor ordered. We may not like it, but you can’t drive a nail without a hammer; you need to make your point known, and if no one is listening, you have to stop talking and start doing something else.

    But it’s a very gray area. Too much violence is bad; you become those who are oppressing you. After the American Revolution, we didn’t invade England and take them over; we got what we wanted and that was enough.

    I’m proud of the women for standing up for themselves. I’m disgusted by the extent to which they did. More importantly, I’m comfortable feeling both at the same time. What a horrible world it would be if I could only choose one.

  6. 6

    It was the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers being killed by militant subjects that forced them out.

    To my knowledge, the British did not have hundreds of thousands of their soldiers killed by the Indian independence movement.

    What did happen was that the strain of World War Two made holding on to India too costly if the mass of the Indian people were determined to seek independence.

    The real tragedy of India was the orgy of violence committed by Hindus and Muslims against each other when the country was partitioned.

  7. 7

    But back to the subject matter of the OP, I would say the women in these countries are in a better position to determine whether or not violence is justified than we are.

    But for it to work, some of the men in these countries are going to need to stand with the women.

    Sadly, the way these things usually turns out is like this exchange between Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables:

    Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?

    Ness: Anything within the law.

    Malone: And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.

    Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.

    Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That’s* the *Chicago* way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?

    Ultimately, the only way to get rid of the “Morality Police” in these places is to make them afraid to do their job. Not only should they be confronted when trying to harass people on the streets, they need to be followed home at the end of their shifts and made to feel vulnerable. But again, that’s up to the people themselves to make the decision as to how far they are willing to go to end this oppression.

  8. me

    This. I am so glad to hear you saying what I am thinking- the reactions to this story have been almost as troubling as the story itself, to me. I get that I am coming from a “sheltered” perspective, but without any of the details that you list which aren’t available, this just reads like the women completely over-reacted. Perhaps I just don’t understand the context well enough to have the “appropriate” response.

  9. 9

    Push people far enough, and eventually, they push back.

    These women suffer all kinds of horrors. They don’t just face Schrodinger’s Rapist, but Schrodinger’s acid-thrower, Schrodinger’s lynch mob, Schrodinger’s ‘honor-killer’ etc…

    When you put any creature in a corner, one of two things happen – it gives up, or it fights back with everything it has.

    Frankly, I’d rather these women fight back, and I can’t blame them for doing so. Yes, they responded with a larger amount of violence than would have been appropriate on say, the streets of Dallas, TX, but they also face a much greater threat than they would on the streets of Dallas.

    Non-violent protests have their place. But frankly, so do violent protests. Honestly, I have to say, if I heard about a gang of women throwing acid in the faces of people like this self-righteous, misogynistic priest, yeah, I’d probably feel them justified as well.

    Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you is what so many preach, and yet, they so often forget it’s corollary – how others treat you is how they want to be treated.

  10. 10

    Violence, as with most things comes in degrees. Some guy, thinking is fulfilling his religious duty, an excuse for virtually anything, tells a woman to cover up. The male-female differences in power in an Islamic republic means that his requests were backed by a threat of violence.

    The girls response seems to be in line with this. They called his bluff. The question is not one of violence or not. The violence was implied from the start. For me the question was exactly how much violence was justified. Three days in clinic sounds bad but rural Iran isn’t known for its trauma centers so it seems to me that his wounds were likely more psychologically traumatic than life threatening. This is backed up by the lack of any mention of any marks, stitches, casts, or disability. Kind of sounds like he spent three days nursing his ego and a case of ‘the vapors’.

    But who knows. I once knew an old coot that was beat bloody by bikers. A half-dozen broken ribs, a fractured spine, an eye that popped out and he reinserted himself, and numerous lacerations he stitched up himself didn’t keep him from wandering around town for days telling everyone he was “fine”. It was only a few days after the fact, after his daughter took him to the VA center for a previously scheduled routine checkup that the extent of his injuries was revealed. He served in Korea and Vietnam and was too tough and stubborn to admit he was hurt.

    The question for me is not violence or no violence because the violence was implied. It is: how much violence? Of course it is hard to blame the women. After a lifetime of repression it is going to be hard to hold back once you snap. They clearly restrained themselves. He didn’t die and suffered no obvious long term disability.

    Had they took out a knife and gelded him it would have been too much. Then again that would been a bit too on-point in returning the abuse they experienced. But reconsidering would that really have been any worse than what other women in the area have suffered? Stoned, burned, having acid thrown on them, beheaded, treated as cattle, raped, tortured. And all that is just background noise and the unremarkable status quo to the plight of a hyper-religious finger wagger getting some bruises.

    Limited and controlled violence has a place as a valid means of interpersonal and international relations. It shouldn’t be the first, or even second, recourse and it seldom settles anything but it does clearly send a message of how passionate an issue is and it can set the stage for a productive civil negotiation among equals that might reach a settlement.

    A lot of bullies and jokers will push until they get bruised and bloodied. Only after that do they want to negotiate.

    1. me

      My goodness there’s a lot of assumption going on here. I can’t believe (for instance) that you’re presuming to know the extent of his injuries based on nothing but your wishful thinking, as far as I can tell.

      I’m not saying that I understand their circumstances, but from the facts presented here, I can’t condone what they did. I’m not condemning either- I’m simply not passing judgement on a situation that I know next to nothing about and have no context for comprehending.

      I AM having a hard time with the sentiments being expressed by a lot of people over this story.

  11. 11

    Should what they did be legal? No. But, quite honestly, if some asshole started that crap on me, I would very very quickly get to a point where I would be hard pressed to prevent myself from doing something similar. And I’ve never even lived in a place like Iran where women experience that kind of stuff and worse on a daily basis. I cannot and will not condemn these women for treating that “holy man” exactly as he deserved. He should’ve kept his censorious little nose out of their business if he wanted to keep it intact.

  12. 12

    I’m wondering also, if they would just not have paid attention to him and walked off and he would have called police, what would their punishment (for disregarding a “holy man”) have been? If you can get years in prison just for admitting to be an atheist, am I justified to think that their punishment would have been pretty much the same (for the disregard) as it will be for beating him up – I don’t know if they were apprehended or got away; and maybe that was another reason for the beating – to be able to get away and hide, which they could not have done otherwise?
    So, I agree; we don’t know enough about the situation to pass judgement.

  13. 13

    You guys are the best commenters on the entire internet. I am in awe of some of the thoughtful responses on this thread, and there have been several ideas that have resonated with me.

    He went further to say that to expect the oppressed to not fight is to further oppress them.

    I’m proud of the women for standing up for themselves. I’m disgusted by the extent to which they did. More importantly, I’m comfortable feeling both at the same time.

    Conversations and idea sharing like what is happening here are what I dreamed of when I started blogging. Thank you.

  14. 14

    I can’t begin to imagine what those womens lives must be like. But i can imagine that he deserved to have the shit kicked out of him. I can also imagine that he may think twice in the future before imposing his ideals on passers by.
    We only have his side of the story. He may have been about to rouse a rabble on them,for some corrective “justice”. They may have been afraid for thier lives. Im more squeamish about the fact there are areas of the world where religion has that kind of power that automatically expected his dress code dictates to be obeyed.
    Not only am I not squeamish about it , i hope it sets a trend. Dont get me wrong I’m all for settling differences in a peaceful and civilised manner. I just cant imagine that happening in a society where half of the population seem, from my point of view, to be treated like slaves.

  15. 16

    “She responded by telling me to cover my eyes, which was very insulting to me,” Beheshti said.

    Is he suggesting that he wasn’t insulting the women?

    There are a plethora of stories about extremist muslims beating, whipping and killing women because of their clothes, and no doubt the two women in question had heard of them. I’m not surprised some women lashed out in a country where they could; rather, I’m surprised we haven’t heard this more often.

    That doesn’t justify it, but I certainly understand and empathize with them, especially when weighed against the amount of violence going the other way. Their reaction was likely a result of their frustration with the injustices women in other muslim countries must endure.

  16. 18

    This imam will spend the rest of his life with the knowledge that “Shrodinger’s females” are out there.

    The next time he strolls up to exert his male, imam-ly privileges to tell a woman to cover that strand of hair or wipe that lipstick off, he will have a tiny queasy feeling in his stomach that things might turn out badly.

    Google Translate tells me he had a “lumbar spine contusion” (bruises on the lower back).

    Combining several two accounts … he told her to cover up, she told him to close his eyes if he was offended, he persisted, she shoved him and he fell on his back and got several kicks from one or both girls/women

    “She pushed me and I fell to the ground on my back. From that point on, I don’t know what happened. I was just feeling the kicks of the woman who was beating me up and insulting me.”

    The cleric told Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency that he was hospitalized for three days after the attack, and, claims that a month later, still needs his wife’s help to eat and take care of his personal affairs.

    NOTE: There are several verses in the Koran commanding men to “Avert their eyes” … which may be what the women told him to do.

    “Tell the believing men that they should lower their gazes and guard their sexual organs; that is purer for them. Indeed Allah is well-acquainted with what they do” (24:30)

  17. 19

    They may well have thought that if they didn’t leave him incapacitated he would call for backup and have them beaten, raped (tantamount to a death sentence for adultery) or even killed on the spot. If I’m going to fight a mugger, I’m going to make sure I don’t just get him mad.

    And they may not have realized just how easily one can do serious damage. Or maybe the Imam was exaggerating his injuries for effect.

    I’m proud of them for putting the solution on the one who has the problem: if men are troubled by lust, then they should be the ones with the blinkers.

    1. 19.1

      Now this is interesting… it reminds me of the kidnapping vs. murder issue in the US. Not *entirely* sure if it’s still (or was ever) true, but I’ve heard it said that if bank robbers tell you to move to another room (i.e. kidnapping), you need to try to escape because if they’re caught their punishment will be the same as if they kill you… so they might as well kill you and not leave any witnesses.

      But as I mentioned after Maryam’s post on this same story, we obviously don’t have the whole story – i.e. there are apparently no accounts available from the women/girls.

  18. 20

    And I thought: Woah! Asshole told you to cover up so you put him in the hospital?

    Did you also think that Assholes have been doing this for centuries, and prevailing? Or that assholes may have been telling you this for all your life, and finally you had enough when your initial rebuff was not enough to dissuade him?

    Heck, some folks are all in arms over Richard Dawkins claiming “zero wrong” because Ms. Watson felt extremely uncomfortable with some creep in an elevator, enough to have the The Great Schism, Atheist Version.

    I am glad she put him in the hospital because I would have done so were I in a position to do myself. I’d probably lack the courage she did. At least it is ONE bigot who’ll think twice, just once.

    When a woman is able to stand up to her oppressor, that’s a good thing. In a perfect rainbow and butterflies world she will deliver a brilliant and scathing oratory that will rock the man to his core and make him reconsider his views of women and their place in culture. In the real world that we all live in, is it going to take some people getting the shit beat out of them to turn the tide?

    Please tell me that there is a better way.

    Pretty sure there may be one. But till women like her find it, this will have to do.

    I suppose there was a better way than violence to gain freedom from the English, or defeat Hitler. But let’s not worry about that when we have not provided that better way.

  19. 21

    I want to make another point about levels of violence. I’ve studied and trained in martial arts since the early 80s, when I lived in Okinawa. I know I am capable killing, not just injuring, someone, even significantly larger than myself, with my ‘bare hands’. I also know how to incapacitate someone with only minor injuries.

    If I were mugged, and the assailant weren’t armed with a firearm, I would likely land them in the hospital and not much more. If I were with my wife, and I incapacitated someone, and they told me they were going to get their friends, find where I lived, get my wife, or anything like that, I’d probably kill them on the spot.

    I would, and have, intervened in domestic violence situations that were going down in public (in a parking lot), without hurting anyone. And in the 20+ years since I’ve been doing martial arts, I’ve only been in two physical altercations, but have talked down many many more. I can ignore a lot of verbal abuse myself, and actual threats as well. If someone threatens a loved one that I don’t think would be able to protect themselves, however, they are likely to be killed, not injured. I don’t think restraining orders are worth the paper they’re printed on.

  20. 22

    Ultimately, this is a stand-your-ground story.
    These women acted with disproportional violence based upon experience, bias and an unstated, but what they felt was an implied threat.
    Ok. Let me state without reservation that I applaud them on an emotional level. Just like I applaud the torture of al Qaida at Guantanamo. But, unlike Bill O’Reilly, I believe in the rule of law to save us from our baser emotional selves.
    If you truly feel that abortion is the murder of innocent human beings (I don’t), isn’t it emotionally incumbent upon you to fight violence with violence. But, if you do, the law proscribes a punishment that society agrees is appropriate.
    Disproportional acts of violence – as defined by society – should and must be dealt with in the legal realm.
    If society cannot deal fairly with privilege and denies rights based solely on sex, race or religion, then that becomes the time for a proportional insurrection.
    Rosa Parks changed a nation by taking a seat.

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