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Muslim Americans Stand Up against Domestic Violence

21 December 2011 3 Comments

Salma Elkadi Abugideiri

Salma Elkadi Abugideiri

“We as Muslims should be the forerunners in the domestic violence movement, because our religion mandates us to stand for justice and to stand against oppression of any kind.”


Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, Co-Director of the Peaceful Families Project, about her work addressing domestic violence issues in American Muslim communities. Her responses are below.

What led you to focus your work on combating domestic violence in American Muslim communities in particular?

I am a mental health professional by training and it was my intention as a Muslim professional to improve access to mental health services for Muslim Americans. I recognize that American Muslim communities have the same issues as everyone else, but don’t have professionals from their communities to address those needs. Working to combat domestic violence came up in the context of providing counseling on mental health issues. I was in graduate school doing a practicum and my first client was a Muslim woman who was beaten quite severely by her husband, and that was the first time I was faced with the issue directly. I was confronted with this issue by virtue of doing work in the mental health services field, and came to recognize how big an issue it is, and how taboo it is. A pervasive myth in American Muslim communities about issues such as mental health and domestic violence is that they are “Western,” and that people with our faith and religion are not going to have these problems. It is also taboo because of the huge value placed on privacy and reputations of families in Muslim communities. If we talk about domestic violence, it means forcing people to confront their cultural beliefs and interpretation of Islam, which causes emotional reactions. Women struggle with this taboo not only in Muslim communities, but in other faith-based communities as well. When the group focus is preservation of family, drawing attention to problems can be seen as countering this ideal, especially given the historical context of the anti-domestic violence movement in the US which emerged from a feminist movement that at many points departed from religious communities. So what we see in the Muslim community in the United States parallels what we have seen historically in Jewish and Christian communities in terms of resistance to discussing domestic violence problems.

What do you see as some of the major challenges and greatest areas of need for American Muslim women facing domestic violence?

One challenge is a shortage of services and funding for services. In the DC/Maryland/Virginia area we have Muslimat Al Nisaa in Baltimore, and there are a handful of shelters around the country geared toward Muslim communities. But what’s more of a challenge is that as communities and community leaders we are still not recognizing the need to address this issue of domestic violence. If we as a community and we as women don’t acknowledge the problem, we can’t get help. Another challenge is the way that people have historically misinterpreted certain texts in Islamic teachings. Many have ended up with a lopsided understanding, so that even Muslim women don’t know what their rights are. That’s a huge challenge, especially if our religious leaders haven’t confronted the gap between what Islam says and what people believe, which is many times impacted by culture. When Islam first came to the Arab world, one of the major areas it addressed was the role of women, and improving the status of women. Then gradually over time those teachings became clouded in culture. Islam brought with it a new model for the role of women, granting them the right to own property, to participate actively in society as autonomous actors, and it promoted tolerance for women to voice opinions. Despite everything Islam brought to emphasize women’s status and the importance of mutual well-being in relationships between men and women, the impact of viewing and teaching religion through a cultural lens has made it difficult for many to adhere to the egalitarian model of marriage exemplified by the prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) in his treatment of women.

Imams sign Proclamation Against Domestic Violence

What are the opportunities to create social change for American Muslim women who are victims of domestic violence, and what can other communities, both in the United States and abroad, do to help?

The biggest opportunity is the opportunity for education. Women here in the United States have access to all kinds of information, and the first thing I encourage women to do is to study Islam themselves, to read the Quran themselves, and to connect with the message of God directly, and understand for themselves what that message is. Once they do this, women cannot accept a second class position. Education is the most critical component in creating social change, and in the United States we are afforded so many freedoms to think through the meanings in our religions and cultures and the opportunity to redefine identity, which is a natural process, especially in immigrant communities. Domestic violence affects everyone. One in every four women in the United States is a victim of domestic violence—that’s here in the land of the free and the home of the brave! Arab and Muslim women suffer from domestic violence because they are women, NOT because they are Arab and Muslim. They suffer from domestic violence because women around the world have less power and privilege, so it is important to put things into context.

How does your work with the Peaceful Families Project help to meet challenges and take advantage of opportunities for change?

At the Peaceful Families Project we focus our work with the Muslim community because we are addressing the issue of domestic violence using an Islamic framework. We use an approach that resonates with Muslim communities, and as Muslims ourselves, we are in the best position to do this. We as Muslims should be the forerunners in the domestic violence movement, because our religion mandates us to stand for justice and to stand against oppression of any kind. We are a prevention organization that seeks to address change at multiple levels. At the community level we address the community on what Islam says about healthy relationships, marriage and divorce issues. We have trainings and workshops for Imams, bringing them together to discuss these issues, including how to assess risks in domestic violence situations and how to collaborate with service providers. We provide cultural competency training for existing services in the United States to help them develop and provide more culturally sensitive service. Muslim Americans are addressing domestic violence both as a social issue and as a public health issue. I have seen change in the last 15 years as many Muslims around the country are becoming active in educating communities.

You mentioned cultural competency and cultural sensitivity as a need for existing service providers in the United States. From your perspective, how important is the role of cross-cultural awareness and understanding in women’s rights initiatives against domestic violence?

They play a key role because for women domestic violence issues generate questions about identity and spirituality. Many organizations have biases about Muslim women and are not equipped to accommodate their needs. My experience is that as soon as shelters and domestic providers know what Muslim women need,  they jump to meet those needs. A lot of times, for example, women leave their husbands with nothing except what they are wearing. So being culturally sensitive would include helping Muslim women get the kind of clothing they might need, prayer rugs, Qurans, and so on. It is important for American service providers to understand the values of those they seek to help, so they can help in a way that doesn’t make people feel like their culture and religious values are being dismissed or they need to be “fixed.” Cross-cultural understanding is crucial in order to help a Muslim woman who is in a crisis—who is about to possibly leave everything familiar behind, who runs the risk of her family and community turning against her, not to mention the taboo of going to non-Muslims for help. Service providers need to understand what she’s going through, so that they don’t become one more entity that is victimizing her, and instead be an entity that helps her connect with positive elements in her community. Even in our cultures, within the Muslim community, there is a lot we can pull from, such as our emphasis on reputation. Instead of asking “What kind of a woman leaves her husband?” we can flip it and ask “What kind of a man beats his wife?” Instead of reinforcing negative cultural concepts, we need to reframe cultural concepts and use them in a positive way.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.


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3 Comments to “Muslim Americans Stand Up against Domestic Violence”
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  2. Emily says:

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  3. [...] Peaceful Families Project – Muslim Americans Stand Up against Domestic Violence [...]

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