It is the extreme, sensational cases that make it to the front pages of the newspaper. We were all horrified when we heard of Nazish Noorani, a young mother killed by her abusive husband. What we don't hear are the voices of the abused behind the closed doors of many homes across social, economic, ethnic, racial and gender lines. They exist in our community just as they exist in the non-Muslim communities. We see these men in our masjids, their wives suffering in silence at our picnics and our dinner parties. Domestic violence is, again, a human problem, much like sexual harassment.
By definition, domestic violence is a pattern of abuse – physical, sexual, financial, spiritual, emotional and verbal, including disparagement, blame, being ostracized, isolated and condemned. Domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Not one incident but a pattern. Men are victims too, 835,000 a year in the US alone, of physical, emotional and financial abuse.
Many cultures think it is the man's God-given right to hit a woman. According to Change from within: Muslim perspectives about Domestic Violence, even the term Domestic Violence is looked upon as suspect by many Muslims because it is reminiscent of “western feminists ideals and doesn't occur in traditional Islamic texts”. Another reason that many do not publicly bring this issue up is because it re-enforces the stereotype that Islam is a violent religion. Others do not want to pry into 'private lives' except to tsk tsk over the plight of another.
In abusive situations where women are the victims, the ones who do gather the courage to tell are told by their families to go back to their abusers for the sake of family, honor, name, children, to be patient and forgive her spouse after the abuse. Cultural narratives often define why many women do not seek help – i.e. thinking that your husband is Majazi Khuda, a metaphorical God – especially in the South Asian culture. What is that? That is not Islam. That is Jahiliyyah (ignorance). Growing up, I heard that term, on the television as well as socially, enough times to think that it was a part of the dīn. So to me, it is not surprising that 85% of the women who did seek shelter in the U.S. from abusive marriages were immigrants (according to a survey of shelters by Peaceful Families project.) But this could also be because they could not afford to fly back to their countries of origin or did not have the same support system that indigenous Muslims may have.
Not all Muslim men who abuse their wives do it because they believe it is their Islamic right – many are not religious nor do they think religion is part of the equation. What is especially troubling is when men who are aspiring to piety and learning about the dīn, engage in violence at home and think it is justified in the religion. These attitudes are disseminated by preachers who spew misogynistic statements like some women can only be controlled through striking or telling men that their wives are dirty beings from the dunya. They make religion hell for women and anyone who speaks out against this is deemed anti-Islamic. How do you think a man will act when he goes home after listening to one of these sermons? We need to think. People are leaving the religion because of how some Muslims treat women, using 'Islam' as a weapon.
Have you ever heard in the sīrah of the Prophet (ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam), the Mercy to the World, that he ever struck anyone, wife, child, servant, ever? If you aspire to follow his Sunnah, be a husband like him. He was the living embodiment of the Qur'ān. We also know that this issue is dealt in Islam under the broader umbrella of prohibition of oppression and abuse. Allāh hates oppression, so we should hold on to our spouses in goodness, lifting each other spiritually or let them go.
We learn from our shuyūkh, who learned from scholars who have given up their lives for the dīn, sacrificing 20 or more years before making tafsīr of the Qur'ān, that laymen, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who bring up the verses in the Qur'ān suggesting that Islam condones domestic violence, need a reality check. Ibn Ashur, the Grand Mufti of the Zaytuna in Tunisia in his tafsīr (Tafsīr al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir) says that men should be punished by authorities when they have lost control of their hawwas and hit their wives, when they commit domestic violence, when they use a verse from the Qur'ān as a means to justify their anger, their rage. According to Ibn Ashur, it is the greatest irony that the verse in the Qur'ān which came down to eliminate domestic violence is used to propagate domestic violence.
Renowned scholars say that any woman who is suffering from domestic abuse should go to the proper authorities and report her husband because he is committing a sin. If the Muslims won't help her then she can go to anybody else who will grant her sanctuary. In our dīn, even animals have rights and no one can humiliate or torture them so what about the daughters of Adam, the best of creation?
What should we do as a community?
We need to ask ourselves: do we know what to do if we are faced with such a situation?
What would we do personally if someone who was in an abusive relationship ever approached us for help? How can we be resources to our abused sisters? One of the many things that you can do is join our Khutbah about Domestic Violence Drive – commit your local masjid or mussalla Friday khuṭbah to this topic to spread awareness and start discussions in our communities. Conversations need to take place at the community level urging counseling, psychological and spiritual, for abusers and the abused.
We need to ask ourselves: do our masājid have counselors or ties to domestic violence shelters? For example, in a survey conducted by Peaceful Families most DV shelters have on average 35 mosques in the vicinity but only 12% have any ties to the shelter. Only 6% of imams have any domestic violence training.
We need preachers like imām Khalid Latif, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, imām Zaid Shakir, Maulana Tariq Jameel, and Shaykh Abdullah Hasan, Brother Dawud Walid who frequently speak about this topic and have the knowledge to address this issue. Our own Shaykh Yahya has a post coming soon on the Sunnahs of Love. (Click on the links to hear their views on domestic violence and how to treat your spouses).
We need parents who raise sons who know how to treat women like the Prophet Muḥammad (ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam) treated the women in his family and teach our daughters to model that tranquility in their own relationships. We need teachers and counselors who can talk to young men and women about how to manage their relationships in ways that please our Creator and who teach young women to respect themselves and recognize signs of abuse. We need doctors and lawyers in our communities who can speak and educate their patients and clients. We need safe homes in our communities where victims/survivors can go. We need unique solutions that include community-based accountability because we cannot always rely on the police because of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist policies practiced by the authorities.
We cannot let traumatized men and women suffer in silence wondering: Who would speak to me, for me? This is our tradition; this our duty.
Interview with Umm Yousef, a survivor and DV advocate
Researchers who have interviewed hundreds of abusers say that it is all about control. In this video, the abuser say that he would plan out exactly how he would treat his family seconds or hours before the incident. Many people who are not in an abusive relationship question why victims don't leave, blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator.
Hope is one of the most common factors that experts see. Many women feel like they would be sinning if they leave. Dependency is another major factor. To find out more about this from a personal view, I interviewed Umm Yousef, who had the courage to leave her abusive marriage. She found shelter in My Sister's House and urges you to support their work.
[Hena Zuberi]: Many people ask, why don't women leave or why do they keep going back to men who abuse them? What would you say to them?[Umm Yousef]: On average, it takes women seven tries to leave an abusive husband. In a way, I am lucky because I did it on the third try, but not before getting back together with my ex and making a baby. To understand why women go back, one has to understand and be aware of many factors including the very nature of the cycle of abuse, the effect of brainwashing, traumatic bonding (also known as Stockholm Syndrome) and the possibility of there having been inter-generational violence (i.e., abuse in a woman's family of origin.)
Another huge reason for staying is fear. One aspect of that fear, in addition to fear of the unknown, relates to the studies that have shown time and again that THE MOST dangerous time for a woman is when she attempts to leave the abuser. Oprah did a show at one point encouraging women in DV relationships to take the threat assessment test that is used to access the threat level to elected officials. To counteract his loss of power and control over the woman, an abuser usually escalates the aggression and abuse, at times to the point of death or serious injury.
Ultimately, if a woman is contemplating leaving an abuser the most important thing is to have two kinds of plans: an emergency plan if it gets out of hand before the victim is really “ready” and a more long term plan for stability. In one online forum I visited, women had whole bank accounts set aside for leaving their ex, were scoping out apartments, and planning their restraining orders. While this would give a woman the best chance of staying “out” of the relationship by making as clean of a break as possible, there are always those situations where a woman has to leave in the middle of the night with just the clothes on her back and her shoeless children. And that is where emergency DV shelters, friends and family play a vital role.
It bears mentioning that some of the other reasons women choose to stay in an abusive relationship can also include a partner's promise to reform, shame, concern for her children, lack of support, exhaustion, gender-role conditioning, economic concerns, practicalities of the situation, feelings and personal beliefs.
When it is put that way sometimes it can put it in perspective and instead of the oft heard “why did you stay?” more people will be able to understand and empathize with how insurmountable an obstacle it seemed for her to leave. Even now, almost a year later, I still have the occasional desire to go back because it is familiar, and, as the saying goes, the devil that you know…
[HZ]: Psychologically, how have you been impacted by the abuse? Do you see changes in yourself after getting out of the situation?[UY]: I think the biggest impact the abuse had on me was on my self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Secondarily would be the effect it has had on my children and my ability to bond and be a loving mother. I sincerely believe that the abuse exacerbated the post-partum depressions I had with all three of my pregnancies. After 10 years of emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual abuse I attempted suicide at the end of 2010. For many months during my initial attempt at divorce and after I separated for good I experienced anxiety and panic attacks. I have seen multiple therapists and counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, etc, including two marriage and family therapists and a trauma psychologist. Basically, what I have heard time and time again is that while I am “out” in the sense that I am no longer living with him it is far from over. Healing will take time, and in effect, because we have children together, I will never get completely free from the abuse. He will always have a link to me through our kids and will exercise that bit of power and control, continuing to use me as a target for his anger and aggression, from time to time.
[HZ]: How prevalent is DV in marriages between American converts and men from overseas?[UY]: Unfortunately, from what I have seen, pretty frequent. I think this stems from a lack of proper understanding of Islam, lack of knowledge of a woman's rights and a husband's responsibilities, and a lack of guidance and support for new sisters. A Muslim man who comes to the USA, sometimes solely for the Green card, can get away with a lot more marrying a new Muslim whereas many things she may believe, or not even know to ask about would not be tolerated in an “Islamic” culture. An American woman's idea of “feminism” also allows a man to take advantage of her financially for sure. I think mixed cultural marriages are more likely to be solid if they are built on a foundation of deep knowledge and understanding of the religion and a desire to implement its precepts. Unfortunately, I am the first to admit I did not do enough knowledge seeking before taking my shahādah, and as the years progressed and I came to know details of the religion, strengthened myself as a Muslim and began insisting on my rights, my marriage also got rockier.
[HZ]: How would you explain the feeling of being abused to a person who has never suffered it himself/herself?
[UY]: The best explanation or metaphor that I came across over the last few years after I came to understand that what I had experienced in my marriage was, in fact, abuse was a YouTube PSA (public service announcement) that shows a woman slowly struggling and drowning in a tank of water, and just as she is about to drown the water gushes out and she gets a moment of relief, only to have the tank start filling up again. That is how the cycle of abuse works and feels. In fact, women who have been in abusive relationships for a long period of time learn how to “relieve the tension” as it were and trigger the abuse in order to get that sense of relief, and they also of course try to prolong the period of calm after the storm. In this way women try their best to modify and change their own behaviors in an effort to better survive in the only way they know how, to live with and around the abuse, and to live through each incident.
[HZ]: As a survivor, what advice can you give other women in similar situations?[UY]: Every woman is a survivor, the ones in their marriages and relationships, and the single divorcees. Every day women survive. The more important signpost I can place in front of a woman is not survival; it is the ability to thrive. If a woman is merely hanging onto each day, then that is not a self-loving way to be, so I can only suggest that each woman take a long hard look at her unique situation and experiences and see if she can find a way to thrive in her own way. Ultimately each woman has to make the decision to leave and make it work or stay and make it work for her. No one can tell her what the best thing to do is, and she knows her abuser more intimately than anyone else ever will, and only she can know how safe it is to do either of those actions.
One more thing I would have to add that is of increased concern for an American convert to Islam is the issue of dual nationality and dual citizenship for children born in the USA. Parental rights are strongly in favor of the man in Islamic countries and none of the so-called Muslim countries are signatories on the Hague convention, an international convention that attempts to prevent and aid in the persecution and return of abducted children. Converts married to dual citizenship men should be especially aware and mindful of this point because while abduction out of the state can be devastating, often international child abduction can be nearly forever.
Here is an updated list of Muslim organizations in the US on the Peaceful Families website.
Please add resources from your locality – we will add them to the list.