Muslim Americans respond to domestic violence

by Zeba Iqbal
10 March 2009
New York, New York - On 8 March, International Women's Day marked women's accomplishments and challenges in achieving equality.

One of the most profound challenges women continue to face, however, is domestic violence, as painfully illustrated by the recent murder of Aasiya Zubair by her husband, Muzzamil, in New York.

In 2009, three women will die every day in the United States at the hands of violent partners. Although domestic violence is a problem faced by women of all backgrounds, this event highlighted the problem of violence against women in the Muslim American community.

In this community, victims often face cultural, religious and language barriers that hinder societal understanding. And Muslim American organisations that work to end domestic violence labour tirelessly to combat these barriers and change attitudes in our community. The reality is domestic violence will not go away until we address it forcefully with urgency, wisdom and unity of purpose.

Islam advocates against violence, especially in the home, which is a place of tranquillity and protection. As such, comprehensive and effective rapid response efforts after Aasiya's death included an open letter to the Muslim American community from Imam Hagmagid Ali, who is both Executive Director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) and Vice-President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), persistent media watch efforts to ensure constructive dialogue and objective, well-researched press releases, articles and blogs.

One of the most noteworthy actions came from concerned citizens in the campaign, "A Call for Swift Action Against Domestic Violence". Numerous prominent imams around the country, including Sheikh Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute, participated by committing their Friday sermons to the topic of domestic violence as incompatible with the teachings of Islam.

The community rose to the challenge after Aasiya's murder. Now, how do we garner this momentum and continue to move forward?

The Muslim American community acknowledges that domestic violence exists, but has yet to apply the critical thinking and forceful action needed to effect permanent and widespread change. The results of past efforts, for example, are mixed. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Muslim American community established mosque-based social services networks. Since the 1990s, a small number of experienced Muslim American social workers have developed anti-violence organisations, including the Peaceful Families Project (PFP), the only national Muslim anti-violence organisation, Turning Point for Women and Families, New York City's first Muslim-American anti-violence organisation headed by Robina Niaz, a veteran social worker, and North American Islamic Shelter for the Abused (NISA), located in the San Francisco Bay area.

These organisations offer direct victim services, such as help lines, crisis intervention, legal assistance and temporary shelters, as well as community outreach and training. These organisations build coalitions, affiliate with mosques and work with national Muslim organisations, such as the Islamic Circle of North America and ISNA.

ISNA now hosts a domestic violence panel at their annual convention and PFP worked with the Faith Trust Institute to produce a DVD on domestic violence. PFP also offers youth programmes to encourage careers in social work. Turning Point recently launched a scholarship fund with Hunter College in New York for this purpose.

The biggest challenges for the Muslim American community are retaining momentum and creating a sustainable support network for victims.

Aasiya's death created momentum; news spread virally through Facebook, email, blogs and direct outreach to prominent imams, community leaders and concerned citizens. Communication was key. To retain momentum, activists should continue to use viral networks to further the dialogue and to create milestones like a coordinated annual sermon in large and small mosques across the country on domestic violence.

When it comes to concrete ways to support victims and prevent future abuse, there are two areas to address: attitudes and structures. In terms of attitudes, the community needs to ensure that victims are not judged or blamed and that perpetrators are held accountable. With a sense of ownership we need to internalise the need for action and mobilise around combating domestic violence. Structurally, we need more organisations that provide safe spaces and assistance for victims, and more people trained in working with domestic violence cases. Encouraging young Muslims to pursue careers in social work, as some organisations have already begun to do, is one solution to this problem.

The prevalence of domestic violence in our community is a blemish against us as Muslims. We must aggressively work to remove the silence on domestic violence and open the way for true dialogue, action and accountability.


* Zeba Iqbal is an organiser of the campaign, "A Call for Swift Action Against Domestic Violence", vice-chair of the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals and a board member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in New York. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 10 March 2009,
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