In part 1, we heard from brothers and sisters who had suffered emotional abuse at the hands of their spouse. This type of abuse is a troubling but all-too-common phenomenon – both amongst Muslims and in the world at large. As Muslims, however, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of what we consider acceptable behaviour – a standard determined not by culture or arbitrary opinions, but by the Qur’an and Sunnah.
In order to better fight off this poisonous cancer in our Ummah, we must educate ourselves about both its signs and the effects it has on those it afflicts.
Are abusers evil?
One of the most difficult concepts to grasp is that abusers are not necessarily evil people. Often, they are completely unaware that their behaviour is manipulative, abusive and harmful, and are shocked to know that their victims feel abused – if they are ever able to acknowledge it at all. Their behaviour stems from their own issues: insecurities, troubled childhoods, mental illness or having witnessed abuse in their own families while growing up. Worse still is when they use the deen as a way to justify their attitude and their behaviour, even when provided with clear evidence that their ‘religious’ excuses are baseless.
The term ‘emotional abuse’ carries with it vivid connotations of screaming, name calling and intimidation. It can be hard to reconcile this image with someone whose actions are not loud and angry, but cold and even calm. It is even more difficult to recognise or acknowledge an emotional abuser when that person displays good characteristics or actions that appear to conflict with the stereotypical profile of an ‘abuser.’
We are often taught, if not explicitly, then implicitly, that abusers are evil people, but we sometimes lose sight of an abuser’s humanity – because they are human, just like us.
At the same time, however, recognising that they are flawed individuals who have allowed themselves to hurt others does not mean giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card. It does not mean making excuses for their behaviour, or allowing them to escape the consequences of their actions.
There are also different levels and types of emotional abuse, from the subtle (which is most difficult to detect and recognise as being emotional abuse in the first place) to the obvious extreme (where the behaviour is blatant and no attempt is made to deny or hide it). Some individuals, whether unconsciously or deliberately, are masters at emotional manipulation and emotional blackmail; they have the ability to appeal to their victims’ affection for them as a means of controlling them. Many victims of emotional abuse don’t hate their abusers, but love them or at least care for them deeply. It is precisely this love, and their desire to save their relationship, that keeps many men and women trapped in abusive marriages despite the fact that they know deep down that it is an unhealthy situation that is affecting them (and their children) negatively.
Leaving abusive marriages – the challenges
Many people question why those in emotionally abusive relationships don’t leave sooner. The truth is that it is often very difficult for them to leave, for a variety of reasons.
For women, the obstacles are overwhelming: cultural stigma, misconceptions about whether Islam allows men to wield such ‘authority’ over their wives, family pressure, financial constraints, fear regarding their children, access to resources and an Islamic leader who will support them – these are just some factors that play into how difficult it is for many Muslim women to leave an abusive relationship.
However, men too face extremely difficult challenges of their own. Contrary to what many believe, male victims of abuse experience many of the same issues that female victims do – a destroyed sense of self-esteem, a sense of self-loathing or even blaming themselves for whatever issues their abusers may have. For some, it is that they don’t even know that a man can be abused by a woman. For others, a deep sense of shame about being perceived as weak or unmanly prevents them from confiding in others. It is difficult to find someone to turn to for support as there is a real problem of being mocked and humiliated rather than being provided with assistance.
Sadly, there are also cases where it is fear that keeps them in the marriage – there are women who threaten to take their children away, or even to report their husbands to the legal authorities for being ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists.’
One particular point to be cautious of as well is that when discussing emotional abuse, it is all too common for people to start arguing about ‘who gets abused more.’ It should go without saying – yet, alas, must be said – that in the Sight of Allah SWT, injustice and oppression have no gender. The harsh reality is that abuse does take place at the hands of men and women, towards other men and women. Our role as an Ummah is not to play the blame game, but to be aware of the facts and to act in accordance with Islamic principles of upholding justice and supporting the oppressed.
Anas reported: “The Messenger of Allah said: ‘Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or is oppressed.’ A man asked: ‘O Messenger of Allah! I (know how to) help him when he is oppressed, but how can I help him when he is an oppressor?’ He said: ‘You can restrain him from committing oppression. That will be your help to him.'” (Al-Bukhari & Muslim)
Many Muslims are hesitant to discuss or take action against issues such as emotional abuse because they don’t want to ‘cause problems’ or get involved in things that ‘aren’t my business.’ There is the idea that stepping forward to help a Muslim sister who is being abused (in any way) by her husband is a betrayal to the Muslim man, or that his honour will be tarnished, or that it is better for a Muslimah to suffer in silence than to ‘expose’ a Muslim man.
What we forget is that preventing a fellow Muslim from causing harm – any type of harm at all – to others is, in and of itself, a praiseworthy deed. Rather than allowing injustice and oppression to flourish within our Ummah, it is the duty of every Muslim to stand up for what is right, even if what is right contradicts deep-rooted cultural ideas and beliefs.
One way that Muslim communities can work to take action against emotional abuse (and other types of domestic violence) is to actively provide support for victims and to stigmatise the abuse itself.
Community leaders, imams, speakers and indeed the average person can all cooperate in fostering an environment where support for abuse is called out. Those of knowledge and in a position of authority can and should use the minbar to emphasise the Islamic impermissibility of such abuse. Leaders should make it clear that anyone who comes to them with stories of abuse will not be turned away, rejected or made to feel unsafe (or forced to go back to their abusers). Community members can start within their own homes by educating themselves, children and other family members about what abuse entails and how it is Islamically unacceptable. Should someone share a story of abuse, they should be directed to the appropriate resources and supported in their search for a solution.
In essence, the masjid and the Muslim community should be a place where abuse of all types is stigmatised and a safe space for those who are going through it.
We cannot allow our misguided cultural mentalities to influence us into keeping silent about the emotional abuse, or physical abuse, or sexual abuse – or any other injustice – that takes place within our families, our communities, our Ummah. Taking a stand against these issues does not mean turning against your brothers or sisters in Islam, but in fact is a means of assisting them in leaving behind behaviour that is displeasing to Allah SWT.
You are the best of peoples ever raised for mankind; you enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, and you believe in Allah. (Al-A’raf:157)
Read Part 1 HERE
Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a young Muslim woman who believes that even the most painful of life experiences can be a source of benefit and reward for the true believer. She hopes that by sharing these experiences, others will be made aware of the very real issues that affect the Muslim Ummah, and work towards eradicating the injustices and oppression that we inflict upon each other. She blogs at http://www.TheSalafiFeminist.blogspot.com