By Janet Kozak
Muslims have the utmost responsibility to right known wrongs with their words and actions. This is commanded to us by Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and ensures that we are constantly striving to better the conditions of the weakened and oppressed.
Sa’eed al-Khudree, may Allah be pleased with him, heard the Messenger of Allah, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, say, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” [Muslim]
The current conditions
Most Muslim victims of domestic abuse and violence seek help from their immediate communities first, before seeking help from law enforcement, social services, domestic abuse shelters, and other victim advocates. Unfortunately, not all Muslim communities are well-equipped to handle abusive and dysfunctional relationships. This can have sometimes dire consequences. Being ill prepared to assist abuse victims puts victims at risk of returning to their abusers, or forces them into availing non-Muslim services, protection, and support.
However, Muslim community leaders don’t always feel qualified to help a victim of domestic abuse, nor are they always adequately trained in conflict management and family therapy techniques. I’ve previously spoken with Imams and other community leaders who feel overburdened by all the shoes their community expects them to fill – sometimes wali, marriage counselor, substance abuse counselor, fundraiser, and more.
Therefore, it’s imperative that Muslim communities work together to create new programs and task forces of trained individuals who can offer their services and assist couples. Communities can reduce domestic violence in our communities by aiming at prevention. It’s also vital these programs be developed quickly to keep victims from reaching out to non-Muslims for help, as Allah has commanded us to avoid help from non-Muslims.
Allah says, “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians as Awliyaa’ [ protectors, helpers], they are but Awliyaa’ of each other. And if any amongst you takes them [as Awliyaa’], then surely, he is one of them. Verily, Allah guides not those people who are the Zaalimoon [polytheists and wrongdoers and unjust] […]” [Quran, 5:51]
Unfortunately, some organizations may try to convince Muslims to forgo some of their faith-based principles in order to avail services. In times of crisis, it’s of highest importance to offer truly Islamic role models to victims in need, especially those who may question their faith and choices after an abusive relationship.
One victim shared with me that she feels it’s often women who are labeled “reform Muslims” or “liberal Muslims” – those she observes may not pray, wear hijab or abaya, and could be considered “Western feminists” – who are more likely to reach out to the abused Muslim women. To counteract this trend, more practicing strong Muslimahs need to not only help women, but help women in an Islamic way.
Muslims who wear hijab need to step up and help women and show support for people who are abused. Full Muslim programs and shelters need to be developed where Muslims won’t be coerced or forced to give up their Muslim way of life and ethics.
To address surfacing domestic abuse, here are some specific proactive actions that imams, Islamic center staff, and masajid can implement. Current and former Muslim victims of domestic violence and abuse stepped forward to share their experiences and offer insight as to what this list should include.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a start.
All of these actions of the hand will help educate, prevent domestic abuse from happening in the first place, provide more effective counsel to families, and help victims access help and services after allegations of abuse.
Stopping abuse before it starts
Teens need to be caught and taught before they start thinking about marriage. Focused educational programs must promote general openness of dialogue and address topics like; setting personal boundaries, human rights, and how one should expect to be respectfully treated in a relationship.
If we keep the youth counseling and discussion easy and open, it won’t feel like a taboo topic. Instead of pretending that relationships are not developing, we need to address them outright.
Unhealthy relationships are not just a Muslim problem. If needed, professional youth and teen counselors from outside the Muslim community can be tapped into and invited to train elder community members and prepare them for these talks and workshops. The issue of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships needs to be brought up early and often, and kept out in the open.
Pre-marital education about healthy relationships vs. abuse
Pre-marital counseling is key to forming healthy understandings before marriage. Effective pre-marital counseling should include a series of sessions on domestic abuse and its many manifestations.
If couples come from patriarchal cultures where abuse is practiced and tolerated, they may assume that because certain actions are normal they’re also healthy. Also, if they come from abusive families, they usually can’t recognize when they’re being abusive or victimized.
Some couples really don’t know the difference between healthy and dysfunctional relationships. If the markers of both relationships are explained and taught ahead of time, the training can make couples more aware to warning signs.
Encouraging constructive domestic abuse and violence education within the context of premarital counseling, and including a detailed listing of inappropriate behavior within the nikkah contract, could go a long way towards educating and discouraging domestic abuse in Muslim communities.
Get converts some walis!
I can’t stress enough how important this is to combating abusive relationships.
So much emphasis is placed on marriage, especially for new converts, that they’re often pressured into marrying one of the first men who expresses interest. They’re encouraged to marry immediately, often without first cultivating their own knowledge of Islam or actually making sure they are compatible with a particular brother.
If the imam is too busy to fulfill his dutiful role of wali to new converts, then there has to be a system in place to help. Appointing a convert sister without Muslim relatives a suitable wali is imperative. This fatherly figure stand-in must help the sister do background checks on any proposals and give gut recommendations on the suitability of various brothers.
Consider assigning teams of older married Muslim couples to new reverts to help them through the marriage process. The woman can help with emotional support while the man can be the appointed wali/wakeel.
Effectively addressing claims of abuse
When an individual contacts a masjid or community center about allegations of marital discord or outright domestic abuse, this should be taken very seriously and handled with the utmost care and support. Chances are the problems are much deeper and dangerous than they appear at first and crimes may have been committed.
An appropriate care and counseling approach should involve in-depth screenings for all types of abuse and injuries, separate interviews for couples, and assessments by qualified and licensed marriage counselors.
Ask the right questions about the abuse
Detailed questionnaire should be presented for victims to fill out detailing the extent of all the various types of possible abuses. Victims must be given thorough assessments and sufficiently screened for traumatic brain injury to ensure that their case is handled with appropriate care and concern. Brain injury in abuse victims can make accessing other needed services, or even remembering the abuse, difficult and confusing. Care must be taken to better understand how affected the victim is by the ongoing abuse.
Separate interviews are key to learning all one can about the relationship. It’s not only awkward to address marital problems with the couple in the same room, but it can also turn to cannon fodder once the couple returns home. Above all, it’s important to never justify abuse in any way, shape, or form. Never tell a victim to tolerate or accept abuse.
One victim vented, “When our [American] Muslim communities tell us to shush, keep it quiet, wait, be patient, or give him (the oppressor) time, that is the same [as those] who turn a blind eye to rape and “honor” killings [in other countries] always making the news here.”
Ensure community members are qualified
In many communities there is a dearth of Muslims working in the social services. This means there are far fewer Muslim marriage counselors and advocates than are needed to address issues of domestic abuse and domestic violence.
To combat this shortage of qualified professionals, ensure that your masjid or Islamic center is budgeting for staff certifications, professional development, additional schooling, and other licensing.
In the long term, invest in the health of the greater community by holding career fairs explaining the benefits of certain needed professions and to encourage these fields of study. Youth should be cheered into the mental health and social service professions as a public service to their communities. This will eventually result in more Muslim counselors, and diversified available resources.
If you need to recommend private practice professionals outside of your masjid or Islamic center, take the time to check the credentials of family therapists and other mental health professionals in your community. Ensure they’re actually educated and qualified to practice in their fields.
Practical help and assistance for victims
Domestic abuse victims become refuges in their own land, and should be helped as such!
In addition to the first four practical steps support persons can take to help Muslim victims of domestic abuse, there are other types of assistance needed as well.
When victims leave their abusers they are in need of help with; finding new shelter and moving, new (or used) clothing (often because they left everything behind), toiletries, appliances and other home goods, job assistance, and much more!
To meet these needs, communities can:
- Create charities and pool funds to make resources available specifically for domestic abuse victims and their families.
- Rent and maintain safe houses.
- Form food banks.
- Collect and store of new and donated clothes, toiletries, and other personal items.
- Create community-specific job boards and forums for those looking for work.
The whole community needs to work together to develop relationships with advocates connected to local and state resources. They must work with abuse specialists to create explanatory pamphlets on what victims can do next and where to go for help.
When some areas have only a small percentage of Muslims, I admit this can be a challenge. Regardless, there needs to be systems and charities set up with the sole purpose of helping abuse victims and their families within the available means, in every Muslim community.
Sometimes it just helps for victims to have someone to talk to.
To support survivors of domestic abuse, communities must provide opportunities for connection and therapy by organizing and arranging weekly space for support groups. Invite a therapist and other speakers who can address specific concerns, lead workshops and projects, and hit therapeutic targets.
These weekly meetings could be as simple as an informal support group. or as detailed as a 12-step program aimed at hitting specific steps and stages of recovery. In either case, the goal is to create a safe space where women can share freely without being judged. Sessions are best led by experienced domestic abuse counselors or licensed therapists trained in treating victims with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and other fallout from years of abuse.
With some preventative management, thorough assessments, and creation of safe spaces, we can go a long way towards affecting the long-term health of our communities. By targeting youth, newlywed couples, and converts, and by teaching the dynamics of healthy relationships, communities can work towards both reprogramming and support.
For those who are already suffering, or that managed to survive an abusive relationship, we must maintain the resources needed for their full recovery in informed and compassionate ways, while also providing opportunities for self-sufficiency and healing in a fully Islamic environment. Working together, we can change the dynamic of abuse in Muslim communities, one person at a time.