There is an exercise in Zainab Alwani and Salma Elkadi Abugideiri’s What Islam Says about Domestic Violence: A Guide for Helping Muslim Families that asks social service providers to imagine that a female wearing a long overcoat and head covering is sitting in the waiting area on an 85-degree day. “Perhaps her face is covered too,” the text begins. “Close your eyes and allow yourself to tune into your internal responses.”
If we’re honest, many non-Muslims will likely admit that we expect the woman to be soft-spoken and passive. What’s more, we may not be surprised by her confession that she is seeking counseling because she has been physically battered or emotionally or sexually abused by her husband. After all, Western culture is awash in images of submissive Muslim females, and tales of honor killings, female genital mutilation, and girls being attacked for wanting to attend school or drive a car fill newspapers, magazines and blog pages.
Misogyny in the Muslim world is a US media trope. At the same time, the reality is that Muslim women are no more likely to be abused by male family members than their atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Jewish sisters. This fact makes the work of the Peaceful Families Project (PFP), “a national organization with international reach devoted to ending domestic violence in Muslim families by facilitating awareness workshops for Muslim leaders and communities,” double-edged. It has a huge mission: Not only does the 14-year-old organization work to counter pervasive Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice, it also works to challenge those within the Muslim community who excuse domestic violence or refuse to acknowledge its effects. The group’s work is grounded in the Quran and in the example provided by the prophet Mohammed.
Truthout recently spoke to family counselor Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, a trainer and founding PFP board member, and PFP board member Maha B. Alkhateeb. We met in Abugideiri’s sunny northern Virginia office.
Eleanor Bader for Truthout: Maha, I understand that the Peaceful Families Project was started by your late mother, Sharifa Alkhateeb. What was the impetus for this?
Maha Alkhateeb: My mother had been an activist in the Muslim Students Association in the 1960s and was one of only a few women who were active on a national level. She was a public person and people knew of her and gravitated toward her. She had credibility in the Muslim community.
Over the years, women would call her for advice, support or assistance regarding what to do about emotional, verbal or physical abuse. Sometimes women would contact her before going to court. She had a good network and from the early 1990s on she would try to help in whatever way she could, whether getting them therapy, legal services, or housing. Our home phone operated as a central office. Sometimes if my mother was not around, the callers would tell me or my two sisters why they were calling. We would often feel like receptionists – but what struck me, what gave me pause, was the fact that it was impossible to know what other people were going through. I was so grateful that my mom was able to help.
She built alliances with Muslim leaders in the DC area, where we lived. Some people would challenge her, but she had the ability to bring people to the same page. She’d hit the keys in just the right way and turn potential foes into, if not fans, people who respected her. Most of the people she approached for help wanted to do the right thing and keep families safe.
My mom dealt with issues as they arose and would do research and learn what she needed to know to help a particular woman intellectually and practically. From the very beginning, she saw the need to stop domestic violence and wanted to create a response that was structured to meet that need. The Project’s first grant came from the Department of Justice. Our fiscal sponsor was the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, a group we continue to work with, but we’ve been an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit since 2008.
Although Sharifa offered support and assistance to individuals, the Project does not currently do direct service work. What is your present focus?
Salma Elkadi Abugideiri: Education. We do presentations at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, which brings more than 30,000 people together. We also speak at a lot of interfaith conferences to teach people about the Islamic family and discuss best practices for assisting Muslim victims of domestic violence. Our trainings are for lay people as well as religious leaders.
The last weekend of March, for example, I led a workshop for Imams from 10 different states. The training focused on the dynamics of domestic violence, the Islamic perspective, and the role they can play in intervention. We talked about their professional obligations and how to do risk assessment and connect with local service providers.
For those outside the Muslim community, trainings discuss how to work with someone whose faith may be a core part of her decision-making process. Some domestic violence (victim support) providers have biases in terms of Islam, thinking, ‘Of course you’re abused. You’re Muslim.’ They may also believe that the religion will be an obstacle for the victim and will not even talk about, or probe, the role of faith in a particular client’s life.
In Islam, divorce is an acceptable option, but a lot of Muslim women will need to be connected to resources that will support them on their journey to safety. She needs to know which mosques are women-friendly and supportive of victims. This is especially important because once a woman reports the abuse, she may lose family and community support and need other allies. In addition, there may be a cultural taboo about speaking about private issues in public or speaking against family members. I focus on religious teachings that can be used as a resource.
What are the religious underpinnings that you rely on?
Abugideiri: Part of a woman’s empowerment is to become knowledgeable about religious texts and our work is to teach advocates how to reframe issues to support religious values, things that might otherwise present roadblocks if handled incorrectly. There’s the idea that it is shameful for a Muslim woman to leave her husband. This can be reframed so that the shame falls on the man who has abused someone in his family. This makes the value of shame into a resource for the victim, rather than an obstacle.
We also break down verse 4:34 from the Quran. This section is sometimes used to justify domestic abuse. There are parts of the Quran that deal with male behavior, but this section talks about what to do when there is a serious threat to marital integrity due to the wife’s bad conduct. We go back to the original Arabic revelation rather than to interpretations and relate this section to other verses in the Quran so that there is internal consistency. People need to understand the key words and the steps that are outlined in the section. The first word we highlight is Nushuz – which refers to a woman who is promiscuous or who has threatened the integrity of her marriage by doing something just short of adultery. The first step in the process is to talk about it. Today, that seems like an obvious place to start, but in pre-Islamic Arabia this was not the norm. The next step is to separate in bed. This can last for days, weeks or months. The final step is called Daraba in Arabic. Scholars agree that Daraba can leave no marks and cannot cause injury; it is a chastisement. It is not about power or control. It is not about forcing a woman to do something to satisfy her husband’s whims. It is also not a requirement that a couple go through these steps. They can divorce without doing this. Other verses in the Quran talk about mutuality in relationships and the loving relations that should exist between spouses. We highlight the model provided by the Prophet since he never hit or abused anyone.
Has there been any pushback or backlash against the Peaceful Families Project?
Alkhateeb: When my mother first began doing this work, there was a lot more talk about the need to keep the marriage together. There is now a greater understanding that when domestic violence exists, the marriage is not functional. There is also a greater awareness that domestic violence has a long-term impact on children.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, the response of an Imam or counselor was sometimes, “He should not treat you that way but you’re married. Try to pray more.” They might also have implied that the woman must have done something wrong and would urge her to work harder to keep her husband from becoming upset. In their minds, keeping the family together was the most important thing. People in the US today are a lot more open to addressing the issue and helping victims. Groups and programs exist in much of the country to provide concrete support or assistance.
Abugideiri: When I first started doing this work I was called a range of names, from secular to home-wrecker to feminist. The latter was not a compliment and implied that I was not a good Muslim. The mentality has changed and I no longer hear these things.
As Maha said, there is now a greater awareness of the problem and there is a heightened understanding that domestic violence is not necessarily about anger. People can have anger problems, but not take it out on their families. Additionally, we know that someone can whisper, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ and not sound the least bit enraged.
I’m encouraged by the number of hotlines, direct service providers, referral services and shelters that have been created for Muslim women and women of other faiths. The understanding that there is no formula for dealing with victims, no one-size-fits-all strategy, has evolved. Providers know that they need to see what is appropriate for each person. At the same time, what is the same for everyone is the way abuse feels.
It is also worth noting that more attention is now being paid to men who have been, or are being, abused. While most domestic violence involves men abusing women – approximately 15 percent is estimated to be caused by females – as women gain more power in society, some will act out against the men and children in their lives. It always throws me for a loop to hear a man say, ‘I don’t feel safe at home,’ but as more men come forward, we will need to develop programs that are inclusive of their needs.
Many groups within the Muslim community assist survivors of domestic violence. Among them: