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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Domestic Abuse: Don't Believe Me?

Two days ago, my mother met an Iranian woman in her late fifties at the mosque. In a matter of minutes, the woman had warmed to my mother enough to begin pouring out her life story whilst my mother listened.

Eventually, she turned to my mother and asked, “Is your husband a good man?”
“Yes,” replied my mother.
Then she motioned with her hand, slapping one with the other. “Does your husband hit?” she inquired in broken English.
“No,” my mother replied, shaking her head to stress the point.
The woman stared at my mother in disbelief. “I don’t believe you,” was her blunt but telling response.

If my mom had shared this story with me seven years ago, I would have been shocked. Sure, I had always known that domestic abuse existed in far-off lands, but I had never imagined that there were Muslim families in Canada that consider it the norm.

I was in high school when I first realized that domestic abuse is a reality for some Muslims. I still recall the midnight phone call from one of the employees at the mosque. There was a woman who insisted she wanted to stay at the mosque overnight. She was with her 9-year old daughter. They had fled their house because of a domestic problem and had nowhere to stay.

After a few minutes of discussions back and forth, my parents felt the situation was sufficiently serious that they should go to the mosque to talk to this woman. I was brought along in the hopes that I could be a companion to the daughter while the mother sorted out her domestic problems with my parents.

But the daughter didn’t want to talk. Because she was busy sobbing. And her mother was too. And after I had done all I could for them (this meant fetching a Kleenex box and water for them to drink) I ended up in the same room listening to the mother’s devastating story.

Her husband had beaten her. Threatened her. Thrown things at her. Yelled at her. Called her names. All within sight of their young daughter. And while this had not been first time, it was clearly the breaking point – the point at which she had somehow decided she would no longer take it anymore.

And as I listened to the sniffles and the snippets of halting English, a wall of restraint crumbled within, and I could no longer hold back my tears. I wept furtively at first, for I was supposed to be a comfort rather than a crybaby. But eventually, I was forced to leave the room before mother and daughter noticed I was sobbing as much as they were.

Over the years I’ve discovered that there are other Muslim families who live in similar circumstances. For all the families who come to the mosque to speak to the imam about their problems – and there are many such families – there are countless others who continue to suffer in silence.

It is depressing to reflect upon the sad condition of some Muslim families I know. I do not want to blame this on Islam. I know too well that cultural baggage plays a considerable role. But as a community, we need to make a better effort to stem the domestic abuse that goes on in so many Muslim homes. We will be answerable to God if sit by and allow it to continue.

Below are some suggestions that will enable the community to move forward on domestic abuse issues:

Intra-community action:

Professionally train religious leaders and members of the community to deal with victims and perpetrators of abuse. Obtain materials and guidance from community organizations about physical, verbal, sexual and psychological abuse. Find out what community members should do when they discover instances of domestic violence, and develop a plan to deal with these circumstances, should they arise.

Organize mediation. Have trained counsellors on hand, and encourage husbands and wives with domestic troubles to speak with their imam or counsellor. Make women aware that the service is available, free and confidential.

Launch a public awareness campaign so that the community understands that domestic violence is wrong, and that it goes against the spirit of Islam. Write articles in newsletters. Develop and distribute domestic abuse booklets and brochures that are Muslim-friendly. Ask imams to give khutbahs (Friday sermons) on domestic violence. Ask speakers to explain the rights and obligations of husbands and wives in Islam. Request that they describe the loving and collaborative family life of the Prophet (SAW). Men often misuse verses and ahadeeth to justify abuse; ask imams and religious speakers to explain these verses to the community.

Get to know the Muslims in your congregation. This is the responsibility of religious leaders and community members. By building a sense of togetherness, the community can gain awareness of the life circumstances of individual members, thus helping to prevent or put a stop to abusive practices.

Make the mosque a women-friendly environment. Women must be encouraged to attend congregational prayers and take part in community activities. They must be able to ask questions and seek advice. Religious leaders and board members must ensure that women feel comfortable in the mosque, for it can sometimes serve as a safe space away from an abusive home.

External action:

Network with community organizations to organize language and literacy classes for women. By equipping women with the tools of knowledge and awareness, women gain self-confidence and become empowered to act as independent agents within their community.

Work with community organizations and social services to help them understand the unique situations Muslim families experience. Sit on advisory committees and explain the Muslim perspective. Collaborate with these organizations so that they can better serve the Muslim community by building Muslim-friendly shelters and providing information and advice that is sensitive to Muslim needs.

These are just some initial brainstorming ideas. Do YOU have anything else to add?

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UPDATE - see other posts in this series:
Part 2: "Wife Beaters"
Part 3: "What's a Woman to Do?"


  • At 4/12/2005 01:55:00 p.m., Blogger Aliya said…

    Salaam -
    I agree with you Safiyyah. There are many women in our community who are abused by their husbands. And unfortunately many of the men justify their behaviour using religion, citing ayats in the Quran which they feel accord them the right to hit their wives. Yet, at the same time, the silence of the community whilst knowing how many of the women are being treated behind closed doors is also appalling.

    But at the same time, I have started to see an increased trend in violence towards women all throughout Canadian society. In the last few years, how many women have you heard about in the news who have been beaten and eventually murdered by their husbands or boyfriends? Too many to count. Apparently, domestic abuse is a disease in all parts of society.

    I think the government needs to create harsher laws to protect women who are in abusive relationships and have tried to seek help, from the police, froms social services. The government has the responsiblity to ensure that woman are safe in their homes and outside of their homes. If there is no repercussion for this behaviour, why would any person stop? I think we can all agree that any man that hits his wife is not a good person. He doesn't respect the sanctity of marraige, the notion of respect, and has no feeling of love or mercy in his heart. Can counselling really help such a person?

  • At 4/12/2005 07:17:00 p.m., Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said…


    Good luck in your cause. If the community doesn't seem to be doing enough, out the offender as a wife abuser. Publicize his heinous crimes. Demand that the community shun him, he be uninvited to events, snubbed by people and anything else relevant. Create stronger ties with the police force to help teach women their rights, and to have someone to turn to in times of crises.


  • At 4/13/2005 11:33:00 a.m., Blogger cncz said…

    beautiful post
    one thing i would add is for the women to do their homework when they get proposed in marriage. all too often a guy with a good job, who has his citizenship, and seems ok turns out to have two or three beaten up wives out there too afraid to say anything. subhan Allah

  • At 4/13/2005 08:18:00 p.m., Blogger cncz said…

    one more thing is pay attention to your friends. a bruise here and there is understandable, but if someone always has something broken or blue, heads up.
    The reason I say several times is because your friend could just be a spaz. Once I had a 30 kg suitcase fall on my shoulder in the train and a friend saw the bruise when I was making wudu and was convinced that Nice Husband was a bad man.

  • At 4/14/2005 04:45:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Noor: Great insights, as always. What sort of law would you propose? Or would you recommend perhaps applying the laws in a more thorough way?

    TRK: I don't know how wise it would be to "out the offender". I think one would have to adopt a gentler approach if real change is sought. Has the Orthodox Jewish community faced similar problems? If so, how have they dealt with them? Your comments on getting the police involved are interesting, although there would have to be some work done beforehand regarding trust issues. I don't know how responsive the Muslim community would be to police officers. But I think the suggestion should be explored.

    Cncz: I've seen so many scary cases that I'm absolutely terrified about making the wrong decision regarding marriage! So don't scare me further. I agree with you, I'm (only half) kidding. People need to find out as much as they can about the individual's character before marriage. The problem is that sometimes a person's true colours only come through when they're already married, in which case it's too late.

  • At 4/14/2005 12:23:00 p.m., Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said…


    that suitcase story cracked me up. thanks!


    Outing the offender could be used in extreme cases when gentle pressure doesn't work. In some sectors of the Orthodox community they prefer to sweep things under the carpet, rarely take the women's view and support the guy. It is a common stereotype of Sefardi men (from the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Greece, Turkey and other areas) that they beat their women, but I don't know how much that is based on fact.

    Having community police officers who at least are sympathetic to the communities beliefs, or even better are members of that community, is crucial in today's world for minority groups in foreign countries.


  • At 4/14/2005 01:24:00 p.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…


    strange how the men who justify their beatings with the ayat about 'if you fear fahisha: first, discuss the matter, second, seperate your beds, third, dharaba lightly' (tafsir includes not hitting on the face or leaving bruises) - the same people who cite that ayat as if it were a sole ruling neglect that the hadith of Ai'sha and the testimony of sahaba was that the Prophet's Sunnah was *never* to hit his wives, though to allow it in *extreme* cases, as preferable to divorce, and only in need of discipline.

    On the other hand, I'm not married, nor should I be telling others what to do - I sometimes find myself needing to discipline students, and force is sometimes required where a strong word doesn't suffice ('fear those who don't fear God', as a Turkish saying goes)

    Sh. Abdullah Adhami, who Safiyyah has quoted before on gender relations, once had a private session for women (1999, DIP at IMO masjid) for them to talk about domestic abuse... and I've heard many imams, including Shaykh Faisal Abdur-Razack and my own teacher, get very emotional about the topic...

    and Saudi... I don't want to start, if the way the Indonesian maids are treated (and the horrendous case of Rania al-Baz, the television news announcer who's brutal beating by her unemployed, drug-abusing husband brought international attention to the problem of domestic abuse here last year)... is any indication...

  • At 4/15/2005 07:14:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Anyone who has ever worked in a masjid or islamic centre is very attuned to domestic abuse and other family problems, so I have no doubt Shaykh Faisal was very emotional about it.
    There has been some reinterpretation of that verse because the dharaba pronouncement is in the plural. I have heard it said that it is more likely that the command is a communal one, ie the society should reprimand the women. But however it's to be interpreted, I think this is one issue that has been neglected by our scholars unfortunately, and I would like to see it addressed in a comprehensive manner.

  • At 4/15/2005 07:17:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    And Dawud, I find it very difficult to imagine you physically disciplining children. How does that work? It seems so out of character.
    Are you saying then that you're not sure whether this may leak into a future marriage relationship?

  • At 4/15/2005 10:51:00 a.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    salaam; (I'm not capable of writing brief answers to brief questions, it seems ;)

    no, i'm not comfortable with discipline (and though i get angry, i'm glad my conscience bothers me) - no, i haven't had to discipline students, though I don't want to declare it 'out of bounds'

    (one example in an unnamed private school was a Saudi student trying to push a teacher [Sudanese] out the window - and I don't believe there's any call not to defend yourself from that)

    Mawlana Rumi, rahimuLlah, advised: 'With the intelligent and cultured, you discuss matters using rhetoric (balagha); with the uncouth, you use force' - though I strongly disagree with using force against weaker people (the Sunnah of the Prophet and His Caliphatur-Rashidun was to avoid it, and even to defend the weak: Abu Bakr (radhi Allahu anhu) stated when he accepted the Caliphate: 'the strong shall be weak with me until I have taken from him his duty, and the weak shall be strong with me until I have claimed for him his right'

    No, rather I fear that anger has too much of a hold on all of us, and particularly where the muslims feel disempowered and abused internationally, I fear that child (and spousal) abuse are the domestic reflections of rage over our global 'impotence'. And I don't excuse myself from that: 'Nor do I excuse myself, verily the self commands wrong, but by the Mercy of My Lord' (Surah Yusuf, 'inna nafsal-ammara bi'l-su, illa bi Rahmati Rabbi')

    I've always liked Caliph Omar's statement though (who was known as a tough man before he entered Islam amongst the Quraysh of Mecca); when he was visited by some of the Quraysh as Caliph, they were compelled to wait at his door as his wife berated him over some domestic matters, as he said 'yes, dear... certainly, honey' - and finally when he came to the door, they demanded of him 'What has happened to you, you are a man of Quraysh' (ie, why don't you just tell her to 'shut up', that your guests are more important than her complaints?), he responded 'How should I not listen to her in kindness and patience, she is the one who gave birth and raised my children, and cares for my household when I am gone?'

    may Allah guide us...

  • At 4/15/2005 05:00:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Thanks for the clarification. I know you once mentioned students' behavioural problems in Saudi Arabia, but I didn't realize it was that bad. I hope you are doing well, and I hope too that you get through with your plans in the coming months.
    Take care,

  • At 5/18/2005 12:05:00 a.m., Blogger Saffu said…

    I really dont know what to say! Sometimes, i doubt violence NEVER happens in a home. nearly every family have probably had thier fair share of domestic violence, be they Muslim, Jews or christians. people say that if a cuople never argue or fight or something, theres something wrong with them. i dont know what point im trying to prove. I know people who still have it happening in their homes and are doing nothing to get help for themselves or their kids. they think the only way out is divorce and THAT (in their view) is the biggest scandal in life!!


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