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The Many Faces of Domestic Violence

The Many Faces of Domestic Violence
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 a girl
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 their children.

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 the community,
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 abuse.
  • 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 counselor.
  • Take others seriously if they confide in you about violence. Get involved.

To help yourself or a friend, please contact:

  • Apna Ghar/Chicago www.apnaghar.org
    In 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
  • Kamilat
    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
    Berkeley, helpline 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
    Currently conducting a national survey of violence in the Muslim community. 202-298-8898
  • Sisterhood is Global Institute/Bethesda, Maryland
    Publishers of "A Manual for Women's Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies" 301-657-4355.





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