Content warning: This article discusses violence against women and intimate partner violence, as well as spiritual abuse. If you are being abused or neglected, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit their website; please keep in mind that many abusers monitor web usage, and access resources as safely as you can.
Violence against women — particularly women in our community — has been making headlines in the news lately. Recently, there have been multiple cases where Muslim or South Asian women have been murdered by their current or former spouses. The statistics about intimate partner violence in our community are telling: the Pakistan Democratic and Health Survey reported that more than 1 in 4 married women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15.
The Murder of Sania Khan
Last week, a Pakistani-American woman, Sania Khan, was brutally murdered in her apartment by her ex-husband. Khan was 29 years old and was known to people of her community as a photographer. She was an active user of TikTok, where she uploaded videos vocalizing her experiences with domestic violence and shedding light on the stigma many South Asian women face when making the decision to divorce. Her TikToks portray her struggles of feeling ostracized from her community and the constant battle of figuring out whether her decision for a divorce was the “right” one.
Her musings leave behind a haunting question: how can we as a community stop this from happening to the next young woman?
Domestic Violence in South Asian Cultures
Abusive relationships are prominent globally, yet in community-based studies in the United States, South Asian immigrant women have reported increased levels of domestic violence (Mahapatra, 2012; Raj and Silverman, 2002). Moreover, South Asian women in the United States may face additional health-related challenges due to barriers such as financial dependence on the abuser, immigration threats from partners, pressure to uphold family values and honor, and abuse from in-laws and extended families (Dasgupta, 2000; Kallivayalil, 2004).
The notion that women must uphold a family’s honor by enduring violence and abuse is deeply rooted in the patriarchal practices in South Asian cultures. Some South Asian women in America are immigrants, hence their support system may be limited to the family unit — a family unit that may also be restricted to their abusive partner’s family. Unfortunately, this dynamic can enable and even normalize violence and abuse, resulting in many domestic violence cases being unreported.
Furthermore, cultural practices encourage women to endure abuse because if a woman ends up marrying a partner who is abusive, it is deemed as her “fate” and women are expected to deal with it privately by being patient and silent about their partner’s abuse, so as not to tarnish the abuser’s reputation or display their family/marital business publicly. Using Islam to promote these ideas is another form of abuse; it is spiritual abuse to cite hadith and ayahs about patience while telling women they should be patient in the face of abuse.
In 2021, 48% of South Asian women in America reported experiencing physical violence and 38% reported emotional abuse (National Library of Medicine). In South Asian culture, women are often treated as second-class citizens. This is especially true when there’s domestic violence present, which may not only be perpetrated by the spouse, but also by the in-laws and even within the community.
When a woman marries into a South Asian family, she is expected to be subservient to her husband’s wishes and those of his extended family. Thus, when her husband or in-laws abuse her, she is typically expected to remain silent about it. The social hierarchy in South Asian culture promotes violence from multiple sources — not just from one person — which can reinforce itself due to the multitude of abusers involved.
What Does Islam Say About Domestic Violence?
It’s important to understand that the cultural norms followed by many South Asian countries do not reflect the practices of Islam. In fact, Islam condemns violence, of any sort, against women and men alike. Islam empowers women by giving them a choice to marry who they wish and also allows them to end an abusive or toxic marriage.
Cultural norms followed by many South Asian countries do not reflect the practices of Islam. In fact, Islam condemns violence. Islam empowers women by giving them a choice to marry who they wish and also allows them to end an abusive or toxic marriage.
According to this research paper “Islamic Perspectives on Domestic Violence” published by Yaqeen Institute, the following verse is at the core of the handful of verses that explain the ideal relationship between husband and wife in the Quran. “And among His Signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect” [Quran 30:21].
God also commands men in another verse to “live with your wives in kindness and equity” [4:19], while other verses threaten God’s admonishment if they intend to harm or actually transgress against their wives [2:231].
There are also verses that recognize the complementary nature of marriage by describing spouses as garments for one another [2:187] and reminding believers that men and women are protectors of one another [9:71]. These verses set the standard and paradigm of love, compassion, and mutuality for spousal relationships.”
There are also verses that recognize the complementary nature of marriage by describing spouses as garments for one another [2:187] and reminding believers that men and women are protectors of one another [9:71]. These verses set the standard and paradigm of love, compassion, and mutuality for spousal relationships.
In another authentic Hadith, it is mentioned that the Prophet actively supported a victim of domestic abuse, Habeeba bint Sahl, the wife of Thabit bin Qays and the neighbor of the Prophet Muhammad. He helped her leave the abusive relationship.
When Thabit struck Habeeba, she turned up at the door of the Prophet Muhammad. After telling him about her situation, she said, “Thabit and I can no longer be married.” The Prophet then summoned Thabit, settled their financial affairs, and ensured that Habeeba was amiable to safely return to her family. In addition to these courses of action, Prophet Muhammad took proactive measures to guarantee women would not be married off to harmful men.
It was narrated that the Prophet approached Fatima bint Qays to inquire whether she was ready to get married. She had received proposals from Muʿawiyah, Abu Jahm, and Usama ibn Zayd. In order to help her make the correct decision, the Prophet advised her, “As for Muʿawiyah, he is a poor man without money [and cannot sufficiently provide for you]. As for Abu Jahm, he is a man who habitually hits women. [Therefore] I advise you to marry Usama.”
The most important takeaway is that as a community we must speak up against the violence and abuse women endure around us. Ultimately, the key to reducing domestic violence starts with the men and those who stand by and allow it to continue.
The change will not happen on its own; we need men to speak out against their peers who commit abuse. If a problem is not addressed, it will never go away. It’s time that we take a stand.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) repeatedly taught us that Islam prohibits violence. He said, “The best of you are the best to your families, and I am the best of you to my family” (At-Tirmidhi). Similarly, he told us: “He is not of us who beats his wife or outs her out of the house.” (Ibn Mājah)
It’s time that we as a community step up and protect our women, and stop enabling abusers under the guise of telling women to have faith and sabr (patience).