A Silent Epidemic: Domestic Violence in the Muslim Community

A Silent Epidemic: Domestic Violence in the Muslim Community

Written by Muslim Girl staff writer Nehal Naser 

When I was coming to terms with the end of my marriage and trying to process the abuse I suffered during it, I always got the same response from those who I reached out to for help: “You’re lucky he doesn’t hit you. Be patient with your husband’s faults.”

Have we really set the bar that low? As if lack of physical assault is enough of a standard by which we measure our relationships. One of the biggest taboos in the Muslim community today is that of domestic violence. Family matters are considered private, which is all well and good until it leads to covering up abuse and violence.

A culture characterized by silence and stigma surrounds this epidemic, leaving those who are struggling with it feeling alone and trapped. The lack of conversation has many adverse effects, including a continuous cycle of abuse and a serious lack of resources offered to a part of our community that needs it the most. The only form of domestic violence that is considered “valid” enough to qualify as abuse is physical assault, and even that is often looked over.


But the reality of domestic violence is more vast than that. In addition to physical abuse, it includes things like emotional, sexual, economic abuse, using isolation, intimidation, privilege and so much more. The National Domestic Violence Hotline created this power wheel to show forms of abuse that are often dismissed or not considered “serious” enough to qualify as violence.

Project Sakinah has put together a Muslim version of the power wheel, which includes examples under each category that may look more familiar to members of the Muslim community. (Click for a larger version)

In the Muslim community (and in many others, I’m sure), great efforts are made to protect the abuser and silence the abused in order to maintain a sense of normalcy and avoid discussing a topic that makes so many uncomfortable. So the stories remain untold, and the problem unaddressed. Today I shed light on five of those stories. The interviews collected for this piece are completely anonymous at the request of the subjects, but are all very real and unfortunately, all too common. (All names have been changed.)

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Khadija: 

I was married in my early twenties and it lasted about two years. During that time I was abused physically, emotionally, financially and there was an incident that may be considered as sexual assault, but I don’t feel comfortable discussing it or labeling it as sexual abuse. Although I’m not an easy crier, during the marriage, I cried every day, sometimes without even knowing why. My body was trying to tell me that it wasn’t a normal situation. I internalized every insult that was thrown my way, and made to believe that I was the problem. I kept everything to myself, and didn’t tell anyone for a while. Hiding became my way of coping. If I didn’t tell anyone what was happening to me, I still had some control. And telling would mean that it was actually happening, so for me not telling people meant that it wasn’t actually happening.

Alhamdulillah through prayer and therapy I am now happy. My experiences made me a stronger and kinder person. I know that I can’t change the past so I live for now and look for the future. I don’t regret my divorce at all, I know that it saved my life.

My non-Muslim friends offered much more support and comfort during this time. tweet

It’s so important to hold people accountable. I received little support from my community at the time. The majority of Muslims were very judgmental and unwilling to listen. Some friends even stopped talking to me. Maybe they didn’t know how to handle what was happening to me, but they could have at least listened. I think our community needs to work to removing the stigma associated with domestic violence.

Our imams need to be held accountable as well. I was told “What do you want me to do about it?” and “It’s not my problem” by an imam I went to for help. My non-Muslim friends offered much more support and comfort during this time. I want other women going through this to know that they’re not alone. They may feel that their life is over, but it’s not! Even if you’re not looking to end your marriage, you still need to get help to stop the abuse. We’re not trying to demonize abusers, but we need to hold people accountable if we’re going to see change. Time’s up on this!

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Hafsa: 

“It was my second marriage. I was 29 going on 30. I was already lost and had pulled away from my community because of what I had gone through in my first marriage. I felt like no one was there for me. When I got divorced the first time, everyone dropped me, no one checked in to make sure I was ok. So when I got married again it wasn’t under the best circumstances because I was already lost. I had already been roughed up (arm yanked) by the time I found out that I was pregnant, so I didn’t know what to do.

Our community trains us to not talk about it, to just suck it up.  tweet

During the pregnancy it got worse. It was off and on, every couple of months it would happen, and every time would be worse than the time before. It lasted five years. He also abused me verbally, but the worst of it was the mental abuse. The physical bruises go away but the things he said never did. I wasn’t able to think or function normally. I was afraid to go home. I was worried about my oldest child who was seeing the abuse happen. This all stayed with me and affected the beginning of my current marriage because I had to learn to trust another individual again.

Our community trains us to not talk about it, to just suck it up. We always think that we’re alone in what we’re dealing with and embarrassed to talk about it. What is important for others going through this is to know that you are not alone and that you can find the strength within yourself to get through this. We need to create a space for women to speak about their experiences so that others don’t feel like they are alone.

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Alina: 

I got married when I was 20 years old and the marriage ended when I was 28 – so 8 years. My ex-husband never laid a hand on me, but there was lots of other abuse happening. I was controlled in every way a person could be controlled. He decided who from my friends I was allowed to see and when. He controlled what I wore: No bright colors, no patterns, and everything had to be 2-3 sizes larger. All clothing that I had before I married him that we unacceptable by his standards had to be given away. I could only read books and listen to lectures that he approved of.

He would drive recklessly while the kids and I were in the car with him to scare me into compliance. I was isolated from my work in the Muslim community, which I had been involved in since high school and took great pride in. Living in New York City, I was not allowed to use public transportation of any kind, which meant I was completely at his mercy to get around, and he used that to his advantage.

…I don’t want my experiences with my ex to define the rest of my life. tweet

I was constantly put down, told I wasn’t good enough, and that all of the problems we were having was because I was a disobedient wife. Marital rape is not a concept that he accepted. He took what he wanted from me whenever he so desired and told me that as his wife that’s what I was there for. There was also lots of coercion and emotional manipulation involved. He would take my son off my chest while he was in the middle of nursing when we weren’t ready to leave the house (for plans that he made) fast enough for his liking.

I lost control of how many nights I cried myself to sleep. It’s still not easy to talk about it all, I haven’t fully processed it yet. I lived in fear of the moment that this man would come home and I would have to put on this facade for the sake of the children and pretend it was all fine. Living in that state of distress started to take a toll on my parenting, which triggered intense guilt at the fact that I wasn’t being a good mother. It was a vicious cycle.

Thankfully after getting out of the marriage I don’t see it affecting my day to day life now, although I don’t know how easy it would be for me to ever truly trust someone again and let them in enough to sustain a healthy relationship. This worries me because I don’t want my experiences with my ex to define the rest of my life.

The Muslim community made 1,001 excuses for my ex and his behavior and told me time and time again that I needed to be patient. And I was, but no matter how patient I was it was never good enough. I was never good enough. It was the essence of victim blaming. I’m still the one considered to be at fault for not trying hard enough to preserve my marriage. We need to be able to talk about our experiences in judgment free zones with people who are willing to listen and help, not just put in temporary solutions. A band aid won’t help a broken arm. We need to do better.

***

Sumaya: 

I was 26 when I got married. The marriage lasted seven years but we knew each other since childhood, for 15 years. I experienced all forms of abuse. I’m at the point of being numb about it all.

It started off with him being very jealous and possessive of me. I thought he just loved me so much that he wanted to keep me for himself. But it turned into obsessive behavior. He wanted me to cut off all of my friends. He refused to have a relationship with my parents because he said it made him uncomfortable. He would come home drunk after work and take out his aggression on me.

One incident I will never forget is when my brother was coming by so we could go to Eid prayer together. When I tried to wake him up he punched me right in my face. I yelled out the window for my brother to come help me. When my brother came up to my apartment, what he said to me devastated me more than what my husband had just done. He said to me, “What’s wrong with you? What kind of wife are you? My wife takes much more abuse from me and never complains. She must be stronger than you.” My brother was telling me that it’s okay because it’s my husband and that I needed to suck it up.

There were other instances. He tried to suffocate me with a pillow when I was pregnant with my second child. I gave birth to my third child alone because he was angry at me from the night before when I asked him if we could order a pizza because there was no food for the kids. In response, he grabbed me by the neck in front of them. My children still remember the bruises.

Financial abuse was also common. There was a day when I ran out of gas in the car so I sent him a picture of the meter to prove it because I needed to pick my kids up from school, and he told me that if there’s no gas money then the kids don’t need to go to school.

I was told that it was my fault for not dressing up enough for him, for not cooking well enough, for talking back to him, and so much more. tweet

Emotional abuse happened too. He would tell me regularly, “You’re a low life, you’re nothing without me.” And when I asked him if he even loved me anymore he would say things like, “Shut the fuck up! Go talk to someone who cares. Of course I don’t love you. How could I ever love someone like you?”  He always made me feel like there was something wrong with me, and that no one else would want me. In the end I found hotel receipts, condoms, and alcohol in the trunk of his car and realized he had been cheating me, despite everything I had put up with.

All of his behavior was justified by family and community elders. Our community will justify anything for a man and always fault the woman. I was told that it was my fault for not dressing up enough for him, for not cooking well enough, for talking back to him, and so much more. I was told that I needed to suck it up or else no one would want to marry my children in the future. They said to take the abuse so I could get into heaven.

We need to stop sending women back to these situations. We need to offer support and resources to those suffering so that they can get out. We need spaces for women to share their experiences and empower each other, so they know that they don’t have to put up with this kind of treatment. There is a better life out there. My children and I, we can eat, laugh, dance now whenever we want without fear.

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Another woman I spoke to did not feel comfortable going through the entire interview but summed it up best when she said, “I heard this quote mentioned somewhere and it stayed with me: ‘If you stay quiet, they will kill you and say you liked it.’ It definitely hit hard with me because I kept all my problems secret until I burst – and then nobody believed me.”

If you stay quiet, they will kill you and say you liked it. tweet

There is so much to be said here. As horrifying as these stories are, they happen every single day. That’s just our reality. There are common threads running through all of the stories here, including abuse beginning with a controlling, jealous partner, isolation being used as a tool, and a lack of resources made available.

Leaders of the community doing little to nothing to help those coming to them for safety and assistance is unacceptable. The constant justification of the despicable behavior by these men needs to end. In echoing the suggestion made by these incredible, strong and brave women, we need to create safe spaces where we can discuss our experiences so that others can know that they are not alone, that it is not their fault, and that there is so much more out there.

I want to offer my deepest gratitude to the five incredible women who shared their stories with me for this piece in the hopes of starting a conversation that will lead to real change.

May this be the beginning of the end.

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A Silent Epidemic: Domestic Violence in the Muslim Community
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