For Muslim Women, Being in an Abusive Relationship Comes With Extra Stigma
Domestic violence is not a Muslim problem, but a global one.
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Anila is a 35-year-old American woman living in Virginia. She has two children—both girls—and works as a classroom assistant while completing a bachelor's degree in preschool education. Her goal is to become a director at a Montessori school. On the phone, Anila's voice has an air of strength and confidence, qualities that are only just new to a person like her, who five years ago, had no voice at all.
"I use to have really long hair," she tells me. "Hair that would come down to my knees and that I would tie in these big braids. That's how he would beat me up. He would grab my hair and drag me."
Anila is speaking about her relationship with her now-former husband, giving me a glimpse into a life that was primarily spent experiencing domestic violence. Growing up under a strict father in Pakistan, Anila was not allowed outside the home, a situation that changed very little when she arrived to the United States in 1995 speaking only some high school English. She married in 1999 within her faith and the regular beatings that Anila received were given with permission from her father.
"Things started to really go wrong," she tells me, "when I was expecting my first daughter."
Around 2009 Anila remembers her faith as a Muslim being used against her, a form of abuse where the perpetrator justifies their oppressive actions through religious scripture. Historically, religion—regardless of what it says in the religion's holy book—has been interpreted strategically to justify many types of oppression (think the Bible and slavery). And the case is no different with the Koran.
In a Telegraph article about the Koran (especially the verses geared toward women), a Muslim scholar says, "People just use it for whatever point they want to make...They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear."
This sort of spiritual exploitation runs parallel to any emotional, physical, sexual, or financial abuse that victims of domestic violence face—it is used to control a partner through repeated intimidation and fear. "That's not Islam," explains Anila. "Islam is beautiful and not about harm. But they take things [from scripture] that works in their favor and relate it back to religion."
Domestic violence is not a Muslim problem, but a global one. It knows no religion, age, or race and affects at least 35 percent of women around the world, accounting for 21 percent of all violent crime in the US, according to reports from the World Health Organization and Department of Justice, respectively.
But President Trump's latest revision to the Executive Order on immigration and refugees—and indeed the one before that—says otherwise, with an added clause aiming to track 'gender-based violence against women, including honor killings, in the United States by foreign nationals.'
"This is detrimental," says Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, a therapist and founding board member of Peaceful Families Project, a national organization for domestic violence awareness in the Muslim community. "When people hear 'honor killing' they automatically associate it with Muslims and with Islam. Using this type of terminology looks to marginalize our community even more and does a disservice to victims and survivors who are non-Muslims."
Whether it's an "honor killing" or a husband who kills his wife, the level of gender-based violence kind of feels the same. Trump's rhetoric within a bill directed at Muslims, however, implies that these homicides are somehow worse than a man who stabs his wife to death for cheating or another who allegedly shoots her twice with a .357 revolver, only to be busted by her Fitbit.
Treating these incidents differently is dangerous when all are similarly created through cultures built on social structures of patriarchy where men are the predominant breadwinners and women are often viewed as obedient baby-baskets. Trump takes a step backward by pointing a finger at Muslims as many of us fight daily to break down the cultural norms that dictate sexism, misogyny, and the roots of domestic violence. To Muslim communities, domestic violence is like viewing this very same patriarchy, just from a different lens.
That's why faith-based domestic violence support organizations like Peaceful Families Project work on stripping away these cultural norms and emphasizing religious teachings on gender equality, which they say help empower Muslim women to leave abusive relationships.
"Culturally, it can be shameful for a woman to leave her family, to live by herself or to initiate a divorce," Abugideiri explains. "Whereas from the religious perspective, the shame is on the person who is oppressive and divorce is not a sin—it's actually a peaceful alternative to a marriage that's not working, even if it's not abusive. That's something that a lot of Muslim women don't know."
Without education on the topic, the lack of awareness of what condones an unhealthy relationship continues to get passed down through generations and, for the majority of Muslims in the US, that means domestic violence is a taboo topic no matter where you're living.
"As soon as there is mention of a divorce, the Muslim community just kind of swoops in," says Saman, another domestic violence survivor in the US. "I think they're threatened to some extent and feel that 'you can't let this [divorce] happen and break apart the community,' not realizing that domestic violence is the reason for the breaking up of the community and family."
A study by Peaceful Families Project and Project Sakinah in 2011 provides rare insight into how domestic violence affects Muslims in America. The findings of 801 respondents showed that over half had experienced family or relationship violence in their lifetime (whether emotional, physical, sexual, or financial) and 35 percent said their community offered no assistance programs to victims of domestic violence.
"Abuse is abuse," Abugideiri says. "But when working with women from any faith community, it's really important to integrate the [religion] as a resource and build collaborative relationships with faith leaders so you have better success."
Abugideiri explains that many Muslim women may be facing spiritual dilemmas that would stop them from leaving an abusive relationship and that misconceptions of Islam held by some social service providers—namely that it's a religion oppressive to women—can also contribute to a failure to deploy appropriate help.
Saman, who works with a multicultural domestic violence organization called the FaithTrust Institute, left an abusive setting for a women's shelter in 2015. There, she learned for the first time that the violence she experienced over a nine-year relationship was never permissible under her faith. It was an affirmation that she shouldn't have been in that relationship.
"The first thing that my ex did was start to call imams, trying to get them on his side in order to get the religious upper hand in the situation," she says. "That was a huge power thing. Once you have the religious authority consigning, it puts a lot of pressure on a victim."
Groups like Peaceful Families Project and FaithTrustInstitute work alongside imams who, due to their leadership role within communities, are often first-responders to domestic violence. For imams who work with these organizations, awareness training through theological teachings allows them to start condemning any form of domestic violence within their own congregations and further understand what social and legal resources are available. Michigan-based imam Radwan Mardini has been vocal about recognizing that domestic violence is a problem that requires education.
He attributes much of the domestic violence to "traditional customs that you may find in some parts of the Muslim world that have no connection to the Koran. Abuse has been denounced so many times in the Koran, but I find that many imams do not want to address this issue in their sermons. We have to keep on addressing it and exposing it to our communities."
If you're in the US and experiencing domestic violence, please call The National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-799-7233.
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