My Faith Community Must Speak Out Against Domestic Violence

Jul 10

My Faith Community Must Speak Out Against Domestic Violence
by Parvez Ahmed
First published in the Florida Times Union, July 10, 2022

It was a cold winter night in Jacksonville. A woman with only a phone in her hand darted out from a riverfront home. Fearing for her life, she hid behind the bushes next to a dark street nearby. In a panic she called her sister and at her urging she used the remaining one percent of battery on her phone to dial 911. The police arrived on the scene and found her bruised and shaken. After speaking with her and the accused, they found probable cause to arrest her husband and mother-in-law. The police report describes the incident as “domestic battery,” which is a first-degree misdemeanor under Florida law and is defined as without consent the touching, striking or the intentional causing of bodily harm of another family or household member. Despite the victim and her family being long standing members of the local mosque, no one from its leadership paid met with the victim. To the contrary, the victim faced enormous social pressure to “reconcile” with her abuser.

After meeting with the victim, I could not help but recall the award-winning Indian (Hindi) movie Thappad (“The Slap” is available on Amazon Prime), whose fiction mirrored reality.  The movie revolved around a woman seeking divorce after she was slapped for the first time by her husband. She too faced enormous social pressure to “reconcile” and “move on” because it was “bas itni si baat” (such a small thing). Just as in the movie, the victim in aforementioned incident encountered similar dismissiveness. From the ubiquitous “log kya kehenge” (what will people say) to the retrograde “shaadi mein sab kuch chalta hain” (in a marriage anything goes), were all distressingly familiar.

Most Imams (Muslim clergy) are untrained in professional counseling and yet they are the first person many turn to for help. For women victims, the situation is worse. While women are the primary victims of domestic violence, there are virtually no women imams for them to turn to.  Other than perfunctory sermonizing from the mosque pulpit about the mutual duties of a husband and wife, Imams do very little to raise awareness about the scourge of domestic violence.

Juliane Hammer, author of the book “Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts against Domestic Violence,” noted that many Muslim American leaders feel ashamed to air the dirty laundry of their faith community. Concerns about rising anti-Muslim bigotry in society exacerbates the situation further. Muslim women fear that reporting or seeking help will draw even more negative attention to their faith community. Fear of “log kya kehenge” (what will people say) overwhelms any urge to hold the abuser accountable, further silencing victims. In this twilight zone, abusers find compliant surrogates who use unhealthy religious guilt tripping, which the Huffington Post in a November 2019 story titled, “Muslim Survivors of Domestic Violence Need You to Listen,” describes as, “cherry-picked lines of Islamic text to try to justify their actions and guilt their victims into staying in an abusive relationship.”

An article in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health noted that while Muslims in America constitute only 1 percent of the overall population, they account for 10 percent of the media stories on domestic violence. The preponderance of data shows that domestic violence is just as pervasive among Muslim Americans as it is in the rest of society. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

Certain Quranic verses, such as 4:34, which when read without context, may appear to sanction marital violence against women. Preachers from the mosque pulpit need to make it unequivocally clear that domestic violence is not sanctioned by the faith, particularly given that Prophet Muhammad never struck or beat his wives. Instead of silencing victims, the Muslim community will be better served by holding abusers accountable. Islamic sacred texts urge morally upright actions (Quran 4:135) and condemns slander (Quran 49:12 and 24:15), a practice that is often deployed by abusers to further oppress their victims.

But preventing pervasive domestic violence will take more than preaching. The booklet Domestic Violence and Faith Communities, published in 2016 by the State of New York, outlines a few practical steps that all faith communities can undertake to hold abusers accountable:

  • Focus on behavior and not the social standing of the abuser.
  • Refrain from conspiring with the abuser in any way.
  • Do not let fear prevent you from holding the abuser accountable.
  • Remove the abuser from any leadership roles, committees, or groups.

Will my faith community give the issue of domestic violence its due urgency and in doing so prevent the next victim? Or will all this, yet again, be brushed under the rug as “bas itni si baat” (such a small thing)?

[Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is a 2-term Human Rights Commissioner for the city of Jacksonville and professor at the University of North Florida. He has held numerous leadership positions in local and national Islamic organizations.]