Friday, February 22, 2008

Growing Advocacy for Muslim Women

Via The New York Times. Domestic violence in Muslim culture in the Unites States has been a difficult problem to address due to a lack of understanding of the culture on the part of outsiders, or a hesitancy to interfere in what is considered traditional religious gender roles. Thankfully, organizations founded by Muslim American women are fostering a movement to publicly define domestic violence as an unacceptable cultural practice. While domestic violence occurs in the Muslim American community at the same rate as most other groups, approaching the topic has been difficult because it is seen by many involved in the faith as an attack.

“The Muslim community is under a lot of scrutiny, so they are reluctant to look within to face their problems because it will substantiate the arguments demonizing them,” said Rafia Zakaria, a political science graduate student at Indiana University who is starting a legal defense fund for Muslim women. “It puts Muslim women in a difficult position because if they acknowledge their rights, they are seen as being in some kind of collusion with all those who are attacking Muslim men. So the question is how to speak out without adding to the stereotype that Muslim men are barbaric, oppressive, terrible people.”
Ms. Zakaria, and other women like her, believe that the best way to refute Muslim stereotypes is to show the public that Muslim women are addressing the problem of domestic violence. And while many organizers have been expelled from mosques and other Muslim activities for attempting to discuss the problem of domestic violence, recent attempts to find allies within the church are gaining ground.

Apart from self-empowerment and fighting stereotypes, there are other important reasons for Muslim women to be pro-active in tackling domestic violence.

First, many Muslim women who have sought help for domestic violence report that cultural misunderstandings often hinder their recovery. Take this story from the New York Times of a young Yemeni-American woman who went to a local shelter after suffering for seven years at the hands of her husband.

The shelter brought in a hairdresser, whose services she accepted without any misgivings. But once her hair was styled, administrators urged her to throw off her veil, saying it symbolized the male oppression native to Islam that she wanted to escape.
While these women probably had good intentions, they failed to recognize that this woman was fleeing her abusive husband and not her religion. Someone with an understanding of the Muslim culture and religion would have been able to highlight the ways in which this woman could find support and strength within her beliefs rather than fostering the harmful misconception that leaving an abusive relationship means giving up or betraying Islam.

Another reason for Muslim American women to get involved in the movement is that those Muslim women who are sheltered and who may not speak English run a higher risk of being victimized due to the difficulty of accessing accurate information concerning domestic violence and a woman's legal rights. Consider the story of the same Yemeni-American woman's first efforts to escape her husband by reaching out to her family.

The clerics offered marriage counseling, but only if the husband came too, a condition she knew doomed the idea. Her sister suggested she lose weight and be more obedient. Her father encouraged obedience, too, while her husband hit her through three pregnancies. After she filed for divorce, she said, her father hauled her home and hit her too, for shaming him.
Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services in Chicago is an advocacy group for Muslim American women, and they have developed several interesting solutions to this problem. Hamdard briefs area grocery store owners and hairdressers that cater to Muslims, which has produced numerous referrals. It also organizes mosque seminars about breast cancer, then inserts a small segment about domestic violence.

It is important to reiterate that the Koran does not condone domestic violence. There is one Koran verse that is cited by some as support for abusive behavior, but mainstream clerics, such as Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the outreach director for Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, are currently lobbying to make the official interpretation of this verse that women must be obedient to God.

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