"The relationship between husband and wife should be founded upon mercy, compassion and tranquility. Men must treat women with kindness and justice." So preached Prophet Muhammad and so teaches the Qur'an. And yet, domestic violence as well as verbal and emotional abuse against Muslim women is a significant problem in Muslim communities across the country. In fact, a 1999 study of 200 Arab-American households revealed that the majority of men and women interviewed approved of a husband slapping his wife if she humiliates or strikes him first.
Sharifa Alkhateeb, who was the president of the North American Council for Muslim Women in 1993, founded the Peaceful Families Project in Northern Virginia in 2000. Four years after her death, her daughter Maha Alkhateeb, a sociologist, and Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, a therapist, took over the organization as co-directors. Their work primarily provides awareness workshops for Muslim leaders, cultural sensitivity trainings for non-Muslim providers, and educational resources. "We want to raise awareness about violence and abuse within the immigrant community," says Alkhateeb. "The idea of Muslim resources is new and much needed." And so are shelters designed to meet the specific needs of abused Muslim women, say experts.
There are unique aspects of various Muslim cultures that make it especially difficult for abused women to seek help. For example, as Abugideiri says, marriage is highly valued and the belief is that it should be preserved at all costs. Like abused women of all cultures, Muslim women often believe they are the cause of the problem, thinking of themselves as inadequate, 'home-wreckers', or 'bad Muslims'. Some think God is punishing them for past misdeeds. They don't want to 'air dirty linen', especially at a time when, as Alkhateeb puts it, "it's not exactly popular to be Muslim in America".
Ruby Khan, Executive Director of the Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services in Chicago, a multicultural social service agency with a high percentage of Muslim clients, says that after 9/11 it became harder to make inroads into the Muslim community. "There was discrimination against Muslims. They felt antagonized by the media and afraid generally, especially if they lacked documentation (as many Muslim women do when their husbands withhold their papers). So they closed up and didn't trust the system."
Still, there are signs that women are seeking help, and that at least some men are becoming more aware. A growing number of agencies are providing information, services and referral. One of them is Philadelphia-based Sista2Sista, Inc., which serves many African-American Muslim women. It has established the only nationwide hotline for resources and referral, which links callers to "Muslim-friendly providers and services", according to its director, Nafisa Cooper. Such providers better understand the cultural components that come into play when dealing with Muslim communities, including the fact that many African-America Muslim women "are not so willing", as Cooper puts it, "to turn their abusers over to an unfair justice system".
KARAMAH, a national organization founded in 1993 by Muslim women lawyers, offers women guidance in navigating the American legal system while providing Islamic-based legal advice. "We are a think tank and want to help women find solutions to their issues from an Islamic perspective," says Irfana Anwer, director of KARAMAH's family law division. She adds that women often feel comfortable coming to KARAMAH because, unlike other resources, it is not mosque-based so does not pose a threat to confidentiality.
A large part of the work being done with and for abused Muslim women comes from interfaith programmes. One of these is the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Domestic Violence Coalition. Bonita McGee, a board member of the Islamic Social Services Association - USA, an organizational member of the coalition, says, "We are helping to frame the national conversation. We channel the common belief that the faith community has a role to play, whether it is providing social services or discussing policy issues."
Experts agree that it's easier to raise the issue of violence and abuse within Muslim communities when one can demonstrate that such abuse occurs across communities, religions and ethnicities and is not only a Muslim problem.
The Muslim religious community is becoming another source of help. "Imams (spiritual leaders) and mosques could be the tipping point," believes Ruby Khan. One imam, noted for his leadership in helping families and who understands the ramifications of domestic violence and other forms of abuse is Mohamed Magid. In a 2006 interview with Alkhateeb, published in 'Change From Within', Imam Magid said, "Imams need to acknowledge the issue of domestic violence in their communities, face the issues, counsel people. First is the acknowledgement." Then, he said, comes "absolute support" and "a basic knowledge of domestic violence rather than just focusing on Islamic knowledge".
Imam Magid teaches that "domestic violence knows no agenda. ... little boys are abused, elderly people are abused. ...Domestic violence doesn't know age, doesn't know culture, doesn't know religion, and doesn't know economic status." But, he points out "mainly domestic violence is against women, 95 per cent against women". He also underscores that abuse isn't always physical. "Women come to you completely emotionally exhausted, broken, psychologically devastated."
He teaches that withholding money from a wife can represent financial abuse and that it is not only the husband who may be abusive; often sons are relegated to punish their mothers. In his lectures, the Imam refers to Qur'anic verses that "describe the ideal concept of peaceful relationships" as well as addressing passages "that people usually misinterpret". The purpose of an imam, he says, is "to put things in perspective and to set the record straight".
Increasingly, with the help of imams, women's committees in mosques, advocates and service providers, both women and men in various Muslim communities are listening, learning, and becoming proactive about domestic violence. They are realizing that abuse can be physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and financial, and that domestic violence is not a private matter to be ignored. Women are learning what services are available, including where Muslim-sensitive women's shelters are located, and what hotlines to call. At the same time, counsellors, shelter staff and others are gaining cultural competence so they can better serve Muslim women. "Although there is still a lot of work to be done," says Abugideiri, "the outlook for the future appears hopeful."