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.