by Talibah Jilani
The Muslim Magazine, January 1998
Seema died at age 18 on a Jumma morning.
What had been her crime? She'd spoken of a boy in her high school class
and of wanting to date him. It was girl talk. Nevertheless, within a week the family had packed her bags and sent her
to her grandparents in Pakistan. No discussion, no explanation, case closed.
Although she arrived in Ramadhan and fasted along with everyone else, she
revealed her extreme ignorance of Islam by posing questions such as, "What is the actual meaning of la ilaha illAllah Muhammadur
RasulAllah?" So while Seema's parents had condemned her for not fulfilling their expectations of a Muslim daughter, they
failed to provide her with a practical education of Islam. Nevertheless, Seema was the one punished and blamed.
After two months in Pakistan, she was told she would marry an uneducated
first cousin who held few ambitions. In her protest, she received no support or understanding from anyone, including her absent
parents who had endorsed the decision all the way from New York. All around Seema the message was "Comply, or else!"
Hopeless, she then doused herself from head to toe with kerosene, and lit
a match. With 95% of her body having sustained third-degree burns, charred beyond recognition Seema experienced three days
of extreme suffering. Islam clearly prohibits the forcing of marriage. One would think in such circumstances a family would
realize their wrong and repent, but even in death there was little respect for Seema. The family viciously condemned her as
insane, saying "This is what happens when you raise your kids in America."
Except for the fictitious name "Seema" used by this publication to protect
the narrator, this story is true. The saddest thing is while the victim's family acted in the name of Islam their actions
do not depict Islam, the glorious beacon which champions the most basic rights of every Muslimah--the right to be educated,
provided for, loved and respected!
Seema was not a bad girl, she was just
whose story has been repeated all too often.
It is a story of paradoxes, about women, girls and children from all backgrounds--the
wealthy and the impoverished, educated and illiterate, from good families and bad, old and young, immigrants and natives,
of gated communities and ghettos.
This is a story of Muslims who have endured every form of brutality
at the hands of family members, including heinous acts of torture, emotional blackmail, isolation from family and loved ones,
imprisonment, kidnap, rape, acts of sexual perversion, exposure to pornography, and incest. Their attackers are those meant
to protect and honor them--fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. Muslims being a religious people, police, healthcare providers
and court officials receive a confusing message.
The nature of this beast is difficult to grasp, like an octopus with many
tentacles. Family violence can be physical, sexual or verbal abuse, the latter often causing longer-term psychological damage.
In the Muslim community, batterers are most often husbands who seek complete control over their wives, and parents who brutalize/demoralize
In our community the topic of family violence is especially taboo, since
to perpetuate violence is against our faith. Hadith narrates that to shed the blood of another Muslim destines one for the
Hellfire. We are taught Paradise lies at the feet of our mothers. How then is it even remotely possible to justify domestic
violence? Alarmingly, incidents of Muslim-against-Muslim violence are clearly on the rise.
A widespread concern of domestic violence centers across the country are
the nature of calls they receive from Muslim women who, for a number of reasons, tend to wait until the violence escalates
to the most intense level, when either their life or that of their child is threatened. In 1997 some law enforcement and family
violence agencies noted a 100% increase in calls from within the Muslim community, primarily from women and teenagers, which
they attribute to increased awareness.
Before calling helplines or agencies outside
Muslim women tend to wait until the violence escalates to a life-threatening stage.
In terms of what is considered "disobedience," a batterer does
not need much to put him over the edge. Perhaps dinner is a few minutes late, the children are making too much noise, the
shirt was not properly ironed. While nowhere in Islam such conduct is endorsed, documented "punishments" meted out by Muslim
batterers range from various degrees of slapping, punching, shoving, choking, striking with objects, pushing down stairs,
cutting, stabbing, binding, hanging, scalding and burning, confining/locking in a room, garage or outdoors. Some injuries
result in death.
With a goal to mentally control their victim, the threats of Muslim batterers
often relate to family, i.e. to take the children, divorce/leave the wife without money or home, marry a second wife, humiliate
and disgrace the family, and so on. And who are these offenders? They have a need to control others and tend to prey on the
weak or defenseless. However, as the batterer's goal is to systematically undermine the victim's self-esteem and confidence,
even educated, articulate, independent thinking women can, over time, fall prey to abuse, especially when pressured by an
entire family, such as in an extended family arrangement.
Common examples of abuse within the Muslim extended family are in-laws
who brow-beat, demoralize and at times physically attack their daughters-in-law, and male family members who force female
relatives into incestuous sexual relationships.
Muslims tend to view slapping and beatings not as violence,
but rather as the head of a household's right to manage his family.
When someone is courageous enough to come forward, double injustices occur:
for example, when a girl accuses male family members of rape or incest and these same men swear an oath to kill her for having
brought shame on the family, or when a friend who opens her door to a brutally abused woman is labeled a feminist homebreaker
and ostracized by her Muslim community. These women, both victims and their rescuers, remain at high risk, unprotected by
their families or community. To whom do they turn?
At the same time, it is unconscionable that any Muslim should
be put in the position to go outside our community to have their daily needs met, to seek safety, protection, love, or to
be respected. This is precisely why family violence is a community issue.
We do not find a willingness on the part
of religious or community leaders
to step forward, to protect victims, nor to condemn abusers.
Muslim experts agree that cultural beliefs and practices, woven with misunderstood
Islamic teachings, have contributed to current levels of violence in our community. Overall, Muslim leaders have failed to
address this issue in accordance with Qur'an and Sunnah. A common response of Imams, who are most often the first person to
whom a Muslim woman will turn, is to instruct the woman to "be more obedient and pray harder," reinforcing a message that
she has invited the abuse or somehow has control over it, or--even worse--that she is a bad Muslim.
Particularly frustrating to Muslim advocates is the offender's disguise
and repackaging of Islam to justify their twisted conduct, while the Glorious Qur'an and the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet
(saws) forbid the devaluation of women, children and in fact all living things. Islam, by its very nature, prohibits mental
and physical cruelty by men against women, and Allah devoted many ayaat of Qur'an to this subject.
Community leaders who attempt to dismiss or minimize the seriousness of
family violence by labeling it "a women's problem" do their communities no justice. Domestic violence is a community problem
which will not be resolved until the community acknowledges it, and applies examples of Qur'an and Sunnah to eradicate it.
If a Muslim leader is not working to resolve this problem, then he/she is a part of the problem.
Muslim women who turn to religious leaders
are often instructed to pray harder and to be more obedient.
The concern of community leaders, including Shaykh Hisham Kabbani and others,
has motivated the formation of a startup organization which will focus on issues pertinent to Muslim women. Kamilat, meaning
"Those who are perfect", is dedicated to the Four Perfect Women in Islam--namely Asiya wife of Pharaoh, Maryam Mother of Jesus
(as), Khadijah wife of Muhammad (saw), and Fatimah daughter of Muhammad (saw)--With a view that anyone can find a positive
role model within these four real-life examples of piety.
Kamilat will work to identify and resolve issues which impede the health,
welfare, happiness and spirituality of Muslim women. The 1998 International Islamic Unity Conference to be held in Washington
DC next August has devoted one full day to a Kamilat-based agenda, to the theme "The Role of Women in Building the 21st Century."
The organization welcomes input from Muslim leaders and will work to partner with other groups to serve the community.
What you can do:
- In a crisis, always dial 911.
- Understand that violence can be physical, sexual and/or verbal
- Know that Allah has given women the right to be respected.
- Ask your mosque or Islamic center to provide pre-nuptial and
family counseling from qualified individuals.
- In your community, initiate/join a support group.
- Become a certified crisis intervention/conflict resolution
- Take others seriously if they confide in you about violence.
To help yourself or a friend, please contact:
- Apna Ghar/Chicago www.apnaghar.org
1983 started as helpline. In 1989 became full-service center serving hundreds of Muslim and non-Muslim South Asian women per
year. Offers twice-yearly crisis intervention training (40 hours). Helpline 773-334-4663
- ISSRA/Toronto counseling, referral, community development,
public education. 416-767-9358
Provides referrals to women in areas
of education/career/business, health, family violence. Celebrates the homemaker. Toll Free (877) KAMILAT www.kamilat.org
- Narika Asian Women's Hotline
for abused South Asian women since 1991. Counseling, legal. 800-215-7308.
- Niswa/LA, Since 1990, multi-service for small group. Crisis
intervention/shelter. PO Box 1403, Lomita, CA.
- North American Muslim Women's Council
conducting a national survey of violence in the Muslim community. 202-298-8898
- Sisterhood is Global Institute/Bethesda, Maryland
of "A Manual for Women's Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies" 301-657-4355.