Mothers-in-Law: Not a Laughing Matter


Yesterday I wrote about Nujood Ali, the ten-year-old girl who demanded and received a landmark divorce from her husband–a man three times older than his young bride, a man who raped and battered her day after day and night after night. This all took place in Yemen.


Nujood in court with attorney Shada Nasser, her husband Faez (left) and father Mohammed (right).

What happened was not unusual. Rather, such behavior is normative, common, expected.

Today, I would like to focus on the behavior of Nujood’s former mother-in-law. She is the one who egged her son on and who savagely policed Nujood in her husband’s absence. The mother-in-law encouraged her son to beat Nujood: “Hit even harder, she must listen to you.” In addition, during the day, she guarded Nujood, who wanted to go out and play with other children. Her mother-in-law scolded her. “Impossible! A married woman cannot allow herself to be seen with just anyone–that’s all we need, for you to go ruining our reputation.”

I am not surprised. I experienced a mini-version of this mother-in-law/daughter-in-law scenario in Kabul. I also saw my former mother-in-law mistreat her female servants. (In her defense, I must say that her life was exceedingly bitter and it may have maddened her).

Nujood begged her own family to rescue her. They flatly refused. They told her that “all women go through this and that she had no choice but to return and obey her husband.” This is entirely normative behavior. (By the way, this brings to mind one of the false allegations made by the Lancet researchers who claimed that if Israel had not blocked the roads, the families of battered Palestinian women would rush to their side to rescue them). Alas, their families would probably sound like Nujood Ali’s family.


I have described such female-female cruelties in two of my books: Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman and in The Death of Feminism. Notoriously, in India, mothers-in-law collaborate in the “dowry” burning deaths of their daughters-in-law. They want a new bride who will bring a new dowry. Women all over Africa are in charge of genitally mutilating their own daughters and granddaughters. Women also collaborate in the honor killings of their female relatives. In one such case (which took place in St. Louis, Missouri in 1989, and not in the family’s West Bank home), Palestina Isa’s sisters egged their father on to kill the sixteen-year-old girl whose independent ways might ruin their own children’s chances for a good marriage. Women often enforce the Islamic Veil; arranged marriages too.

Woman’s support of the patriarchal status quo is not unique to Nujood’s Yemen or to the Muslim or African world. It exists in the West. Like men, women have also internalized sexist standards; in addition, women are permitted to compete and aggress against other women, not against men. Thus, women everywhere are biased against women whom they judge, envy, police, and often betray.

In the United States, prosecutors do not always want women on the jury when they are trying a rape case or a case in which a battered woman has killed her batterer in self defense. Female jurors are not always as sympathetic as male jurors in such cases. Also, when it comes to custody battles, women judges, lawyers, and mental health professionals are unexpectedly harsh to mothers, far kinder to fathers–especially to charming sociopathic fathers. (Good fathers are often treated as badly as good mothers are).


However, what’s different is that, in the West, the status quo is, in general, kinder and more just to women. In the Arab and Muslim world, as well as in the African developing world, the status quo is breathtakingly barbaric and heartbreaking. This is why the heroism of someone like Nujood Ali is unique, miraculous, but constitutes a strong and steady signal that America’s foreign policy initiatives must involve girls and women.

This is true in terms of outreach to immigrant communities in both Europe and America.


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