Wife Abuse in the Muslim Community
by Kamran Memon
Wife abuse has hurt many Muslim women, destroyed many Muslim families, and weakened the entire Muslim community. How much longer can Muslims afford to look the other way?
"And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and he has put love and mercy between your (hearts)..." Qu'ran 30:21
"I recommend that you treat women with goodness. The best of you are those who treat their wives the best." Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him)
While North American Muslims loudly protest the widely-documented Serbian abuse of Muslim women in Bosnia, the abuse of many Muslim women at the hands of their own husbands in North America is hidden and ignored by the community.
Domestic violence is the single major cause of injury to women in America. "Nearly one quarter of women in the United States - more than 12 million- will be abused by a current or former partner some time during their lives," according to the American Medical Association; and, despite Islamic teachings of justice and compassion, many Muslim women in the United States and Canada are no exception.
Based on information from Muslim leaders, social workers, and activists in North America, the North American Council for Muslim Women says that approximately 10 percent of Muslim women are abused emotionally, physically, and sexually by their Muslim husbands. (There are no hard numbers, because community leaders haven't taken the well-known problem seriously enough to research.)
Wife-abuse, which stretches across all ethnic, racial, educational, and socio-economic lines in the Muslim community, results in severe emotional and physical pain for many Muslim women, a stacking up of sins for many Muslim men, and many weak, unhappy Muslim families that fail to contribute adequately to the development of the Muslim community and the rest of North American society.
Despite the severity of the problem, the Muslim community has largely closed its eyes and devoted very few resources to helping the victims and stopping the abusers.
This is doubly unfortunate because family violence is one of America's most critical health problems (according to the American Medical Association and the U.S. Surgeon General), and Islamic leadership is needed to deal with this crisis; but Muslims are clearly in no moral position to lead society because they commit and tolerate abuse within their own community.
FORMS OF ABUSE OF MUSLIM WOMEN
"Domestic violence is an ongoing, debilitating experience of physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse in the home," says the American Medical Association.
Although Islam promises women protection from such problems, the reality in many Muslim homes is different.
The most common form of abuse is emotional and mental abuse. In Muslim homes, this includes verbal threats to divorce the wife, to remarry, or to take the kids away if she does not do exactly as she is told; intimidation and threats of harm; degradation, humiliation, insults, ridicule, name-calling, and criticism; false accusations and blaming her for everything; ignoring, dismissing, or ridiculing her needs; neglect and the silent treatment; spying on her; telling her she is a failure and will go to hell; twisting Islamic teachings to make her feel worthless because she is a woman; restricting her access to transportation, health care, food, clothing, money, friends, or social services; physical and social isolation; extreme jealousy and possessiveness; lying, breaking promises, destroying trust; etc. Emotional abuse can take place in public or at home.
Although it's completely contrary to the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the Muslim community nonetheless tends to dismiss the seriousness of mental abuse, rationalizing it as a petty argument between husband and wife, and saying it's not serious unless he hits her. In reality, mental abuse does severe psychological harm to many Muslim women. It destroys their self-esteem and makes them question their self-worth; some have mental breakdowns and go insane.
Furthermore, psychological abuse can lead to physical abuse.
Physical abuse includes pushing, shoving, choking, slapping, punching, kicking, and beating; assault with a weapon; tying up; refusing to help her when she is sick or injured; physically throwing her out of the house; etc. Physical abuse escalates in frequency and severity.
The third form of abuse is sexual abuse, involving forced, violent sex. For example, a wife may not want to have sex for health reasons, but the husband may force her anyway.
These three forms of abuse are usually related and occur of a long period of time. Muslim men, just like non-Muslims, often start with mental abuse and work their way up. Muslim women need to recognize the signs of escalating abuse.
WHY DO SOME MUSLIM MEN ABUSE THEIR WIVES?
There are a number of factors that make many Muslim men abusive.
Abusers are often part of a cycle, picking up the habit after watching their own fathers abuse their mothers in North America or in Muslim countries. And their own children learn this abusive behavior and abuse their wives. (This is an important point because the longer the Muslim community tolerates abuse, the longer it will be passed on from father to son, from generation to generation.)
For cultural reasons, some Muslim men accept the idea that it's normal for a man to hit his wife and that she is no more than a piece of his property.
Some Muslim husbands abuse their wives as a result of frustration resulting from economic hardship, political oppression experienced outside the U.S., problems with the children, or an inferiority complex.
Some abuse their wives because they want them to be more "modern" and less Islamic by removing their hijab (Islamic dress), while others are abusive because they want the opposite.
Some Muslims with superficial ties to Islam don't know that abuse is unacceptable due to their weak faith, poor Islamic knowledge, and lack of interaction with the Muslim community.
Tragically, some Muslim men actually use Islam to "justify" their abusive behavior. Focusing on rituals, considering themselves to be Islamically knowledgeable, and disregarding the spirit of Islam, they wrongly use the Qur'anic verse that says men are the protectors and maintainers of women to go on power trips, demand total obedience, and order their wives around. They disregard the Islamic requirement for the head of the household to consult with other members of the family when making decisions.
Then, if their wives dare to speak up or question their orders, these men misinterpret a Qur'anic verse that talks about how to treat a disobedient wife and use it as a license for abuse.
In reality, the Qur'an and Sunnah provide clear instructions on what procedures a husband must use in conflict situations where the husband is innocent and the wife is rebellious and at fault. The first step is a peaceful discussion between the two of them about the problem and solutions. This is intended to soften hearts and eliminate misunderstandings. If this doesn't work, the next step is for the husband to tell his wife his expectations in a firm, decisive manner. If the rebelliousness and disobedience continues, the husband is supposed to leave the bed, which is really a punishment for both of them for not being able to resolve their differences. If that fails to solve the problem, representatives of both sides meet to try and arbitrate. As a last resort, if he thinks it will prevent divorce by letting the wife know how serious he is, the husband can use a light slap on the hand or shoulder but not on any other part of the body, and it shouldn't leave a mark or scar. Anything beyond this is Islamically prohibited.
This procedure is to be followed _only_ when the wife is the cause of a serious problem and the husband is innocent, compassionate, and well-behaved. If the husband is the cause of the problem, he has _no right_ to do any of this.
Unfortunately, Muslim wives often accept un-Islamic treatment from their husbands because they don't know their Islamic rights, and they don't realize their husbands are crossing the Islamic line.
Abusive men are completely disregarding the Islamic teachings of kindness, mercy, gentleness, and forgiveness, just as they are disregarding the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who never hit a woman and was extremely gentle and compassionate with his family.
WHY IS HELP SO SCARCE?
One problem is that many Muslims don't want to get involved in the "private" family affairs of other Muslims. Rather than enjoining good and forbidding evil, rather than trying to stop abuse in a friend's or neighbor's family by offering to mediate between the husband and wife or by encouraging them to speak to Muslim counsellors, many irresponsible Muslims close their eyes and pretend they don't know there's a problem. So the abuse goes on.
Another reason why abuse isn't stopped is that many abused Muslim women simply don't seek out help. They're afraid that if their situation becomes public they will lose their privacy because Muslims gossip so much, and they fear the abusers will become more hostile when the negative publicity gets back to them. Furthermore, many abused Muslim women remain silent because they lack confidence in themselves and believe that they somehow deserve the abuse. Abused Muslim women also keep quiet out of a feeling of hopelessness and a belief that no one will help them, out of financial dependence on their husbands, out of a desire to keep homes together for the children's sake, or out of love for the abusive husbands. Other Muslim women accept the abuse as a fact of life and learn to live with it.
Of those who reach a breaking point and seek help, many Muslim women turn to imams but often find them unhelpful. Imams often tell these women to be patient and pray for the abuse to end. Some imams make the abused Muslim women feel guilty, telling them they have brought the abuse upon themselves and instructing them to go home and please their husbands. Other imams, who are sincerely but mistakenly misinterpreting Islam by putting the importance of family privacy above any harm that might come to the individual woman, tell the women it is wrong for them to discuss their problems with anyone other than their husbands. The imams's reactions stem from ignorance, cowardice, or friend-ship or blood relationship with the abusive husbands. Relatively few imams have had the wisdom and courage to tackle the problem head-on. As a result of this, many abused women don't bother turning to imams for help.
Looking for other sources of help, many abused Muslim women have turned to relatives only to be told to accept the abuse because making a big deal out of it could hurt the relatives' family honor and reputation.
Finding many imams and relatives to be more cruel than Islamic, abused Muslim women often turn to Muslim female activists and Muslim women's organizations for help. While these activists are often untrained in crisis intervention, they are getting the abused women out of their houses and hiding them until Muslim men can be sent to try to reason with the husbands. They often collect money from other women to give to the abused women until it's safe for them to go back home. When continued attempts to salvage the marriages have proven futile, these activists counsel the abused women on how to get out of their marriages.
As for national Islamic organizations, most have largely ignored the issue of wife abuse, neglecting to highlight the problem and solutions during national conferences or to devote resources to helping abused Muslim women.
Overall, the services provided by the Muslim community for abused Muslim women take care of one-quarter of the need, according to Muslim activists.
Because the Muslim community often leaves them to suffer, many abused Muslim women turn to shelters run by non-Muslims for help. (Seeing abused Muslim women at shelters leaves non-Muslim social workers with an ugly picture of Islam. As far as many of them are concerned, Islam is no more just and compassionate than Christianity or Judaism because the Muslim community tolerates wife abuse too. Going to a non-Muslim shelter can result social workers taking children away from troubled Muslim homes if they think it is better for them to be in a more stable environment, which often ends up being a non-Muslim home.)
Many women go even further, leaving Islam altogether because the Muslim community fails to live up to the Islamic promise of protection, brotherhood, and sisterhood.
THE COMMUNITY'S ROLE
The Muslim community has clearly failed in its obligations to protect many Muslim women and to bring many cruel Muslim men to justice. The community needs to deal much more effectively with wife abuse in order to stop the immediate suffering of people in abusive situations and to help build healthy Muslim families.
First, the community must accept the fact that there is a problem and that it doesn't know how to deal with it.
Then a core group of trusted, active Muslim men and women in each North American city, who are committed to ending wife abuse in the Muslim community and to strengthening Muslim families, must become knowledgeable about Islamic guidelines on the family and be trained in crisis intervention and counseling. (Unfortunately, some community "leaders" will be too ignorant or arrogant to seek such training; but they must not be allowed to get in the way.)
Since there aren't yet many Muslims qualified to teach crisis intervention and counseling, several Muslim women throughout North America have started learning these techniques from non-Muslim social service agencies (listed in the phone book under wife abuse, domestic violence, or crisis intervention). Other Muslim women and men need to follow suit. Whatever they learn from these agencies should be cast in the light of their Islamic knowledge of properly functioning Muslim families.
Once they know what they're doing, members of core groups across the continent should recruit and train others in their communities in crisis intervention and the Islamic perspective on the family. There should be a network of at least 100 trained counselors in every major North American city.
A list of trained Muslims and their phone numbers (or one Muslim hotline number) should be circulated throughout the community in each city so that abused women know whom they can turn to for meaningful help.
(Most of women approaching the network initially will be physically abused Muslims. Victims of mental abuse will less likely to reach out at first because many have become accustomed to the abuse and accept it as a way of life. But educational programs at community gatherings -- explaining what Islamic family life should be like and explaining that there is help available for abused women -- will let emotionally abused Muslim women know they have a way to stop the pain.)
These trained Muslims should give abused women shelter (at people's homes or at community facilities, such as a rented apartment) for periods ranging from several days to several months depending on the extent of the abuse, while counseling them.
(Beyond this, taking into account the fact that many Muslim women will still turn to non-Muslim shelters because they don't want to deal with the Muslim community or because the community program is not big enough to help them, the Muslim community should sensitize people running non-Muslim shelters to the particular needs of Muslim women; and trained Muslims should visit the shelters regularly and constantly remind shelter operators that they are available to help whenever a Muslim woman comes in.)
While caring for the abused women, the trained Muslims should counsel the abusers separately, making them aware of the reasons they abuse, of the fact that their actions are truly harming their wives, that such behavior is completely un-Islamic, and that God will hold them accountable.
After separate counselling, the next step would be joint counselling for the husband and wife, and then counselling for the entire family. The objective should be to heal the family, but divorce may be necessary.
Another option, that some Muslims in New York have tried, is to punish Muslim men for their abusive actions. A "security force" warns, and then beats up, if necessary, Muslim men who continue beating their wives. Usually the abusers get the message; this is the only language many of them understand. Some men have to be beaten before they wake up and are ready to listen to rational, Islamic arguments.
Police and psychiatrists may have to be involved in severe cases of chronic abuse.
Community education is an indispensable factor on top of all this. Starting today, throughout the process outlined above, community leaders and other concerned Muslims need to educate people -- about the problem and about efforts to help victims and prevent future abuse -- through Friday khutbahs (sermons), educational seminars, and workshops. These educational programs can themselves reduce abuse by letting people know the community isn't going to tolerate it anymore. the community isn't going to tolerate if anymore.
Furthermore, the community needs to establish classes to teach Muslim men, young and old, how to be proper husbands and fathers and to teach Muslim women, young and old, how to be proper wives and mothers. Many Muslims don't know their rights and obligations in these roles.
In addition, in order to prevent future family problems, parents and community leaders must teach children and young adults to be compassionate, to value the family, and to resolve problems in an Islamic, non-violent manner.
It's also important for Muslims to go into field like psychiatry, women's issues law, social work, and counselling.
No Muslim community in any North American city has taken all these steps. Unfortunately, the entire plan could take years to implement. (Of course, that makes it all the more necessary to start immediately.) But when theses steps are taken, abuse should decrease if not stop in the Muslim community, according to Muslim social workers and activists.
If, once all these steps are taken, there are more abused Muslim women in specific communities than these networks can adequately help, then Muslims should establish good quality, properly staffed, and well funded Muslim shelters. Many communities may not need to go this far, but some may.
DO YOU REALLY CARE?
It sounds like a lot of work, but the problem is serious enough to warrant a lot of work. The Muslim community has shamefully tolerated abuse for a long time. How much longer will Muslim families (and therefore the Muslim community) be weakened by abuse? How much longer will abusers be allowed to run free and unpunished in the community? How much more abuse will Muslim women have to endure before the community decides that enough is enough?
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