To every gathering of Muslim women, Maria* added a smile.
She came to Islam early, marrying a Muslim man and accepting the religion at 13 years old. She embraced it wholeheartedly,
learning from the sisters as she went along. By age nineteen, she became the mother of a much-beloved baby boy. She and her
son attended Jumu'ah prayers every Friday.
When the women decided to gather in one another's homes
two Saturdays a month, Maria made an effort to come to each meeting. By this time, her son was nearly two years old, and Maria
was separated from her husband and living with her non-Muslim mother. Often, the talk turned to the difficulties of marriage.
Maria listened, sympathized, and smiled. One day, the sisters decided to organize a retreat to discuss family issues.
At the retreat, Maria and the 15 or so other women talked,
laughed, and shared a potluck brunch. They began to discuss the topic of marriage. Maria had a question. She wanted to know
how a woman knows when her divorce is final. As the women focused on Maria's question, she told them her horror story of suffering,
abuse, being divorced, taken back, divorced again, lied to, and finally stalked by her husband. He told her the divorce was
final one day, and the next day that it was not final, and that it was her Islamic duty to obey him in everything. She remained
Muslim, but did not know enough of her new religion to assert her rights. Her tires had been slashed, her home watched, her
peace threatened, and she was afraid.
The sisters were shocked. They should not have been.
According to a survey of the 63 Muslim community workers,
leaders, and individuals done in 1993 by the North American Council for Muslim Women, domestic violence (including everything
from hitting to incest) against Muslim women and children occurred in ten percent of the population of Muslims. If verbal
and psychological abuse were added to this, the figure would rise considerably. By comparison, seven percent of American women
in general were physically abused, and 37% were verbally or emotionally abused in 1993, according to the Family Violence Prevention
Fund. A comprehensive study in 1993 by the Commonwealth Fund found that in one year alone nearly four million American women
suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands or male friends, and that a woman is abused every nine seconds. The Family Violence
Prevention Fund also reports that 34% of men and women have directly witnessed an act of domestic violence. This number is
higher than the combined numbers of adults who have witnessed robberies or muggings!
Maria continued to attend the sisters' meetings as the
sisters began to focus on the problem of domestic violence in their community. She was not the only victim. The sisters protested
to their Imam when they discovered that a community leader involved with their children had used violence against his wife.
It became obvious to them that some community education was in order. Meanwhile, Maria's ex-husband had begun to frequent
another Muslim community in the area, but continued to alternately harass her and then to entice her to continue her relationship
with him. He began to use their son as a way to gain access to her, and he continued to disturb her sense of security and
to assess his control over her.
Authoritarian Family Structures Lead to Abuse and Violence
An authoritarian family structure predisposes many Muslims
in America to be abused in some way and possibly to become the victims of violence. Generally, husband's dominance's in the
family structure, the more likely wife and child abuse become. In the most abusive homes, the father believes and socializes
his wife and children to believe that whatever he wants the family to do is the same as what Allah wants them to do. He, in
effect, makes himself into something of a god.
Of the eight to ten million Muslims in America, more than
half are African-American, a small but growing number are European American, and the rest are immigrants (first, second, or
third generation) from Middle Eastern, Southwest Asian, and other countries.
African American Muslim families suffer from the influence
of the overwhelming incidences of abuse and violence in the general society and from the historical experience of slavery,
which encouraged fractured families. While African-Americans who have been Muslim for many years are as self-directed as any
community, new Muslim families who are searching for stability and morality often look to the immigrant communities for leadership
and mentoring. Unfortunately, the most negative behavioral common denominator between the African-American and the immigrant
Muslim communities is a socialization process which presents the parents, particularly the father, as having the last word
on everything, and teaches children to be unquestioningly obedient as part of their devotion to faith.
The overwhelming majority of immigrant Muslims come from
repressive countries where political power is held by officials who secure or maintain their leadership through unethical,
un-Islamic, and sometimes brutal means. These tyrannical governments tend to produce extended families and societies where
only the man at the top can pronounce what is right or wrong, what is acceptable or unacceptable, and who is good or bad.
Muslim American immigrants fleeing oppressive governments may not yet have realized that their own family dynamics are a microcosm
of the tyranny and despotism they so actively oppose, and mistakenly think a tyrannical family structure is an Islamic one.
The atmosphere in too many of these families is repressive, non-communicative, top-down, and male-dominated, where the leadership
title that is worn is primary and which never allows or plans for asking why or how the family functions.
Surprisingly, in the homes of most Muslims, focusing on
the rules and desires of the parents almost always takes precedence over any focus on Allah. Most Muslim parents do not give
their children any Qur'anic proof behind their opinions, do not allow themselves to be questioned, and no not invite discussion
or reflection on ideas even though Allah continuously instructs Muslims to think and to reflect. Parents rarely see the connection
between parents (instead of Allah) as the focus of the family structure, and shirk associating partners with Allah.
What, Exactly, Constitutes Abuse or Violence?
In order to end domestic violence, we must understand what
it is that we are dealing with. The Family Violence Prevention Fund described abuse as "a pattern of purposeful behaviors,
directed at achieving compliance from or control over, the victim." When these escalate to violence, creating "domestic violence,"
the definition becomes, "a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks,
as well as economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partner."
According to the US Department of Justice report in 1991,
men against women commit 95% of assaults on spouses or ex-spouses. (Abused females may also abuse their children, and are
sometimes the primary abusers.)
Most of the control mechanisms used by potential batterers
that can escalate to violence are so common among Muslim families that they are not seen as threats to the family's existence;
minimizing the victim's complaints, denying the abuse, and blaming the victim, isolating the victim from family and friends,
intimidation, so-called "joking" about marrying a second wife, and emotional abuse such as name calling and degrading remarks
in the presence of her children or guests. While none of this behavior is consistent with the teachings of the Qur'an or the
Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, few parents ever make the mental connection between this behavior and abuse. In fact, many
abuse parents will say they are just "maintaining the discipline of the family."
In most cases, after an episode of violence, the abuser
says he is sorry, may ask for forgiveness, and promises not to repeat the behavior. Women may stay because they hope for change,
still love the person, or are afraid of losing their children; they often leave only when they perceive imminent danger to
their children. Sadly, all research proves that children from abuse homes are equally affected permanently whether or not
they are victims themselves. Maria continued to be confused about her relationship as she tried to sort out her Islamic duties,
what was best for her son, and her own feelings. The Imam pointed out that Islamically she should stay away from her ex-husband,
and said that he did not know what she expected from him, since she had not followed his advice.
an incidence of abuse or violence is reported to someone in the Muslim community, the general response is to avoid "interfering"
in family affairs. Some Muslims believe it is the man's Allah-given right to abuse his wife and children in any way he sees
fit. Others, like the Imam in Maria's community, recognize the behavior as Islamically unacceptable, but have no training
in the areas of domestic violence counseling, and do not know how to intervene effectively and legally. Many Imams, though,
blame the situation on the wife.
Most people just hope the problem will go away. When it
does not, the entire Muslim community suffers; the existence of abuse convinces a community that they are ineffective and
unable to protect women. Maria fell back into silence about her own experiences, but presented the sisters with information
about Sisters of Peace, a group of Muslim women in Philadelphia organized to combat domestic violence in their community.
What is the Islamic Stance on Violence Against Women?
Under no circumstances is violence against women encouraged
or allowed. The holy Qur'an contains tens of verses extolling good treatment of women. Several specifically enjoin kindness
to women (2:229-237; 4:19; 4:25). These verses make it clear that the relationship between men and women is to be one of kindness,
mutual respect, and caring. Some verses, where Allah calls men and women "protecting friends of one another," refer to the
mandated atmosphere of mutual kindness and mercy in the marital home (30:21; 9:71). Others show disapproval of oppression
or ill treatment of women. Surah two, ayah 231 condemns taking women back after a separation in order to hurt them; Surah
four, ayah 15 specifies taking an oath against a wife rather than doing violence to her if a husband suspects adultery; Surah
four, ayah 19 prohibits forces marriages; Surah four, ayah 29 prohibits deliberately causing a wife suspense or insecurity;
Surah five, ayah 92 removes the legal effect from oaths against wives made in anger; and Surah 17, ayat 90-91 require the
fulfillment of oaths, verbal agreements, and commitments. Even in the case of divorce, spouses are instructed to bring an
arbiter from each side of the family to attempt reconciliation (4:35). If this fails, the instruction is to get back together
with dignity and fairness, or to part on good terms (2:229 and 231). Anyone who violates the limits set by Allah is labeled
a "transgressor" in the Qur'an.
Added to these verses is the inescapable fact that the
Prophet vehemently disapproved of men hitting their wives, and that he never in his entire life lit any woman or child. In
the Prophet's last sermon, he exhorted men to "be kind to women-you have rights over your wives, and they have rights over
you." He also said, "Treat your women well, and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers," and at
a different time, he said, "The strong man is not the one who can use the force of physical strength, but the one who controls
his anger" (Bukhari).
Very important are those verses that give women the right
to self-supervision. Surah five, ayah 44 instructs believers to, "Have no fear of people; fear Me." Surah 33, ayah 35 promises
heaven to men and women who individually guard their chastity (or modesty)."Perpetua
In the abusive mindset, all of these verses and hadith
are ignored, and males misquote two specific verses and one hadith to justify complete control of females. The worst interpretations
go so far as t assert that a woman is mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually permanently disabled, and is
prone to immorality, putting her in constant need of male supervision.
The most abused verse is ayah 34 of Surah four: "Men are
the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah gave them more to the one than the other, and because they support them
from their means. So devout women are extremely careful and attentive in guarding what cannot be seen in that which Allah
is extremely careful and attentive in guarding. Concerning women whose rebellious (nushooz) you fear, admonish them, then
refuse to share their beds, then hit them; but if they become obedient, no not seem means of annoyance against them. For Allah
is Most High, Great." This translation charges men with the task of financially and physically protecting and caring for their
wives and families, since Allah has made men physically stronger than women, which is the interpretation of most scholars.
Women, in return for that care, should be careful in guarding their fidelity and morality at all times when no one can see
them in obedience to Allah. Instructions are then given regarding women who rebelliously ignore Allah's commands about sexual
fidelity and become sexually disloyal to their husbands.
The husband is instructed first to admonish his wife (talk
to her), and then to refuse to share her bed. Should those measures fail, the last instruction is often translated as "hit
her," (or "lightly tap her," when the sunnah of the Prophet is considered). Some translators assert that it is incorrect to
translate the word "hit" at all, based on the Prophet's lifelong abhorrence of hitting women, seen in his statement, "Never
hit the handmaids of Allah" (found in the hadith collections of Abu Daud, Nasa'l, Ibn Hibban, and Bayhaqi), and in his instructions
in his last sermon where he restrict striking to a light tap (ghayr muharrib - without causing pain) only if the wife has
become guilty of nushooz, obvious immoral conduct. The term nushooz is applicable to men as well (4:128).
The wording of this verse emphasizes the woman's obedience
to Allah's desires, and not to those of another human being, but those who misinterpret this verse would assign men the duty
of being eternal surveillance police over their wives. This verse has been so misunderstood that it is not uncommon for husbands
to prevent their wives from going to the corner store, to attend births, deaths, or marriages, to see doctors, seek education,
or even to visit their parents without express permission. This verse has also been used to underpin the mistaken belief that
the qawwama of men as protectors and maintainers of their wives not only implies unquestionable obedience to men as individuals
but also that only men may lead women in any aspect of life whatsoever on any level. In short, this verse has been used as
a tool of control and abuse completely opposed to the Islamic foundation of marriage and family.
Another misused verse is ayah 53 of Surah 33: "O you who
believe, enter not the dwellings of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time...and when you ask of them
(his wives) anything, ask of them from behind a curtain. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts...it is not for you
to cause annoyance to the messenger of Allah, nor may you ever marry his wives after him. That in Allah's sight would be an
enormity." The verse is obviously directed at Muslim men describing their property conduct only with the wives of the Prophet.
It continues, however, to the main reason that some Muslims believe that men and women must be separate in all spaces, and
an excuse for some men to claim that all public space belongs to men alone. This is erroneous. The instruction relates only
to the wives of the Prophet, and to proper behavior in the Prophet's house. Those who want to apply this verse to all Muslim
women never assert that all Muslim women may not marry after the deaths of their husbands (although in practice, that is exactly
what is expected of women in some Muslim societies according to their un-Islamic customs). Confining women to the kitchens
of their houses during dinner parties, relegating women to back rooms with inadequate or absent audio hookup in most mosques,
or worse, banning women from mosques, and bans by political authorities in some countries against women going to school, all
come from warped interpretations of the previously mentioned verses.
A hadith often used in the control of women reads: "Women,
when they travel a far distance, should have a muhrim with them." At the time of the Prophet, traveling even 40 miles could
be very dangerous since roads were full of bandits and law consisted of each tribe's different rules and regulations. Rule
of law that crossed tribal boundaries, and was consistent with a new concept in 7th century Arabia introduced by Islam. Today
a women can travel halfway across the world by airplane in 19 hours, and remain safely among large groups of people at all
times. Yet this hadith continues to be sued, even by a few Muslim leaders in large US cities, to prevent Muslim women from
going from one city to another, from one part of the city to another, or from leaving the doorways of their apartments, alone.
The real question is, did the Prophet practice, encourage,
or even condone surveillance and control behaviors towards women? He never did. Knowing this, it is up to each individual
Muslim, as husband and wife, as extended family member, or as community member, to shape morally, ethically, psychologically,
and physically sale and healthy society where families can raise happy and contributing members of society.
Ending the Violence: Where Do Muslims Begin?
Let there be zero tolerance for abuse and violence against
women! The words of a famous ad campaign state, "There's no excuse for domestic violence." If we hold this in mind, the future
for battered women will be a positive one.
Research shows that the more we are exposed to violence
against women, the less we are upset by it. Muslim women need to improve their knowledge of their own faith, and then reclaim
their right to define themselves in the light of the Qur'an and the Sunnah, instead of by customary practices, traditions,
extremist viewpoints, or those who believe Muslim women need to be saved from themselves.
Families need to maintain open lines of communication between
all of their members; regular family meetings where everyone is allowed to express themselves without any recriminations are
helpful. Marriage must be seen as a partnership, and marriage contracts should specify a commitment to an abuse, free and
violence-free family. The parents must ask of their children only that which is good and which conforms to Qur'anically based
concepts. Extended families must stop covering up abuse, violence, and incest in the name of "preserving the family honor."
Above all, the family, like the individual must keep Allah as its focus.
The Family Violence Prevention Division in Canada this
year published a full report on family violence. Of great significance to Muslims is the need they identified to "reconceptualize
power in a way that distinguished between creative and violating power and that more directly expands the focus on power to
move beyond power dynamics in individual relationships to power structures." This thinking should be taken from the personal
level to the global level. Communities need to see individual cases of family violence in the light of the nature of the global
power structure, and that of the community as a whole, to discover whether the community power structure is actually promoting
a license to batter.
Imams must be protectors of women's safety by example,
avoid blaming wives, and recognize when they do not have the expertise to truly help women who are battered. Community members
should be encouraged to obtain profession training and degrees in counseling. The community is responsible to develop protocols
for handling problems of domestic violence, network with existing Muslim and non-Muslim agencies that can provide training
or referrals, and set up safe houses for battered women and children.
At least twice a year, each mosque or community center
should present an Abuse and Domestic Violence Awareness Program for Muslim Families that will teach risk identification, abuse
and violence identification, safety planning for possible situations, safety planning for unsupervised visits by a batterer,
problem solving techniques, and information on counseling available for battered women and their families. Muslim community
activists, lawyers, and counselors should meet in each city to develop protocols addressed to their specific community which
will allow for early identification of abuse and a willingness to deal with the situation in order to protect the victims
from further abuse or victim blaming. Wherever possible, shelters and Muslim family service agencies should be put into place.
In 1993, the North American Council for Muslim Women was the
first national Muslim organization of any kind to discuss Abuse and Violence Against Women and Children during a national
convention. In 1995 in Plainfield, Indiana, and the following year in Chicago, the Islamic Society of North America held conferences
for social service providers that addressed several subjects including family counseling, divorce and children's issues, and
the last one was attended by over 200 providers. (Rafia Syeed coordinates this work, telephone 317-839-8157.)