Every day, there are Muslim families whose lives are being wrecked by domestic violence. It should not happen to anyone, but it does. Fortunately, there are organisations and individuals who are tackling the roots of this tragedy in the hope of limiting the number and extent of cases. One such individual is Asma Hanif, co-founder and director of Muslimat Al-Nisaa, an organisation founded to provide health, educational and social services for Muslim women.
Hanif and the late Dr. Mariam Funches co-founded Muslimat Al-Nisaa in 1987 to serve their community by providing clinical and health services to Muslim women. After many years, they extended their organisation’s outreach by creating the Muslimaat An-Nisaa women’s shelter and, in the year 2005, the shelter opened its doors to homeless Muslim women and children who were victims of domestic violence and/or trafficking, as well as the elderly, the dysfunctional, the wayfarer and even the orphans.
To leave or not to leave
For victims of domestic violence, “Leaving is always an option,” says Asma Hanif. “The only limitations are setting up resources and a plan of action. There are several issues to consider – children, physical injury, mental health, transportation, training, job development, housing – but the most important is safety.’
‘Primarily, women come to us on their own accord. In some cases, women are referred to us by masaajid, by family members, by social services or by other shelters. Sisters contact us via telephone, and sometimes by email. If a sister is outside the Maryland/Virginia/Washington DC-area, we interview her over the phone, ascertain her situation and together we put a plan in motion for her arrival at the house. If she is unable to travel to us immediately, we offer advice as to the best available options for her under the circumstances.”
Women arrive at the shelter after having suffered all types of abuse – physical, psychological, imprisonment, sexual – yet, despite the gravity of these abusive situations, Hanif maintains that there are many things that make staying more palatable than leaving.
In one such case, a mother decided to stay for the protection of her daughters for she feared they would be abused without her presence as a buffer. She tolerated the beatings and sexual abuse to ensure her three daughters would not have to.
Hanif has also dealt with women who express no desire to leave their partners, citing love as their reason for staying. Their only request is for the abuse to stop. “But,” says Hanif, “once physical or sexual abuse begins, a woman has few options except to leave. The most I can say is, should you decide to leave, our doors are open for you.”
The stigma of a faith sensitive refuge
Domestic violence remains a taboo subject within Muslim communities. “There is very little support for an effort that is seen as an exposure of our shame. Victims are re-victimised by neglect from within our own community,” mourns Hanif who is often disheartened by having to refer Muslim sisters towards non-Muslim organisations for help and support.
Undoubtedly, domestic violence is not bound by culture or religion, but having a safe faith-sensitive space for vulnerable Muslim victims is a necessary and required community support service. Muslim women in non-Muslim shelters are often told that the reason for their abuse is faith-based and, subsequently, they receive little to no support regarding their faith. As a result, they risk losing it.
At the Muslimat Al-Nisaa women’s shelter, women are assured of faith support in every way. From a designated prayer room where all five prayers are enjoined, to a weekly Halaqa, to Halal food and a Hijab-friendly atmosphere, the shelter attempts to maintain an Islamic climate at all times.
“People come up with so many excuses as to why these women shouldn’t be helped. I’ve had people ask about whether the shelter is Shari’a compliant or not. And I say, if a Muslim man is beating his wife, is it Shari’a compliant for the Muslim community to protect him?”
Despite many imams and high profile community members steering clear of addressing the issue of domestic violence, some brave community members have endorsed the shelter. “Imam Zaid Shakir was the first and only high-profile individual who responded to my (initial) plea for help. He spoke at our first event and, Alhamdulillah, as a result, we were able to open our doors.”
To continue providing this service, Muslimat Al-Nisaa is in need of consistent financial support. Rather than request financial aid from state and local government agencies, Muslimat Al Nisaa turns to the Muslim community as their sole provider of support for those whom Allah I has enjoined upon us to supply ‘neighbourly needs’. Expecting the support of our Muslim community, Muslimat Al Nisaa accepted this as a Fard Kifaayah.
Even while soliciting masaajid, attending a plethora of Muslim conferences, completing grant requests and applications for Zakat assistance, the shelter still barely survives.
When the men come
A young Pakistani girl forced by her family to marry a man years her senior arrived at the shelter late one evening. After her husband had received his green card from her citizenship, the beatings began. Coupled with no family support and their continuous encouragement for her to return to him, she grew increasingly agitated and frightened. Social Services had picked up on her behaviour and contacted Hanif pleading for the shelter to take her in.
Days after her arrival a man had been seen scouting the neighbourhood in search of the shelter. Neighbourhood children brought the news to Hanif, “He is asking about you.”
After locating the home, he prowled the area and threatened to enter. Hanif, dressed in shades of purple from head-to-toe stood rooted to the porch and shouted out, “C’mon. You don’t scare me. I only fear Allah. Your abuse does not work here.”
Hanif shredded his threats with her steely strength, and together with the help of the brothers from a masjid nearby, they scared him off.
“Being African-American and unencumbered by the cultural baggage of most who arrive, I’m not afraid when they say they are going to come, ” proclaims a fearless Hanif.
In search of sunlight
Hanif smiles as she talks of a sister who loved to sit in the yard and feel the sun on her face. She would sit outside for hours. Then, one afternoon, Hanif received a call from the other sisters at the shelter: “You have to come and get her, she’s sitting in the neighbour’s yard.”
She had chosen to sit in the only yard receiving sunlight that afternoon.
“You could tell that this sister had been mentally damaged,” says Hanif. After having spent 25 years in a violent situation, with a spouse who had kept her imprisoned in her home, her only wish was to feel the sun on her face.
“The sad thing is she was born normal, with no issues. And she was reduced to this. It could have all been avoided,’ states Hanif.
It is shelters like Muslimat An-Nisaa that shed light upon the darkness of domestic violence. With acknowledging the severity of this issue within our communities comes a responsibilty to act. A collective responsibility to find the sunlight for all victims of domestic violence. It is something we can do. It is something we must do.
Now that you know, YOU can:
1. Donate to Muslimat Al-Nisaa
Send your zakat/sadaqa (Muslimat Al Nisaa is a zakat eligible, 501© organisation)
For more information email: email@example.com
2. Spread the word.
3. Make Dua
Remember all the victims of domestic violence in your du’as at every opportunity.
4. Support domestic violence awareness campaigns and initiatives in your local community, while advocating on their behalf.
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Farzana Gardee is a hopeful writer and educational reformist who lives in Qatar with her wonderful husband.